Elected or appointed school board? An ‘inflection point’ for Montclair
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN and TALIA WIENER
Several community leaders say they’re glad Montclair residents will likely decide whether they should be served by an elected or appointed Board of Education going forward — even if many are holding off on saying what sort of board they’d ultimately support.
The township clerk has deemed advocacy group Vote Montclair’s petition to put the matter before voters in a ballot referendum “sufficient.” That slates the question for the Nov. 2 election, barring legal challenges.
The issue has gone to the ballot five times since the 1960s, and each time, Montclairians have opted to keep an appointed board. The most recent referendum question, in 2009, was defeated 57% to 43%.
“It was great to hear the news from the clerk, because it means that instead of litigation [over a rejection of the petition] we can focus on persuasion, on making the argument that Montclair’s voters can be trusted with the same rights as voters everywhere else in the state,” Vote Montclair founder Erik D’Amato said. “This especially goes for the many longtime residents who opposed an elected BOE in the past, in many cases for good reasons. We need to meet them halfway, and lay out in a compelling way why things have changed enough in the past dozen years to try a different approach to school governance.”
Notably among those is the League of Women Voters for the Montclair Area, which in 2009 voted on a position in favor of keeping an appointed school board — arguing a mayor-appointed board can in some ways be less political than and elected one, and that an elected board isn’t necessarily a more representative one. But the League was set to meet Wednesday night to decide if it’ll keep that position going forward.
Communications Director Carmel Loughman has said the organization supports the referendum itself, as a chance for Montclairians to have a “robust discussion” on the issue. She also anticipated the League playing a role in community dialogues.
Montclair is one of just 11 so-called “Type I” school districts in New Jersey, meaning the mayor appoints board members. The rest of the roughly 600 school districts in the state are “Type II,” with voters electing members.
That means the power to appoint board members rests with Mayor Sean Spiller, also the current vice president and incoming president of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful union representing teachers and support staff. Critics — including former board member Sergio Gonzalez, whom Spiller passed over for reappointment this year — have called that a conflict of interest. Spiller, for his part, said in April he trusts voters to decide if an appointed or elected board is best for Montclair.
If voters were to approve the ballot question, Montclair would also add two more members to its current seven-member board. It would do away with its Board of School Estimate, a separate body that reviews and votes on the district budget and sets the tax levy. The public instead would vote on any budget that exceeds a 2% cap on year-to-year property tax levy growth.
School board Vice President Priscilla Church, appointed by then-Mayor Robert Jackson in 2018, said “like others who have been appointed and served, over the years, we have worked hard to uphold the community's expectation of a strong commitment to serving the needs of our district and protecting the confidence placed upon us.”
But she said with Montclair at an “inflection point” on the issue, “we have no recourse as citizens of a Democratic society except to hear the community's voice.”
Her former board colleague, Gonzalez, had announced his support for Vote Montclair’s petition in April, in a lengthy statement accusing Spiller of letting the local Montclair Education Association effectively appoint board members. Spiller, in turn, called those assertions “false and puzzling,” saying board members act independently of him.
This week, he said his experience as a board member “made it clear to me that our schools are in desperate need of the transparency and accountability that comes from a board elected by the voters.”
Township Councilman Bob Russo had served as mayor from 2000 through 2004. He said at the time, he’d discuss board appointments with the district’s superintendent, and with council members. He’d always reappoint at least one existing board member while adding another, he said, for continuity.
His last appointment came in 2004, which he noted was the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Us. Supreme Court decision, before losing a campaign for re-election as mayor.
“I selected one resident from each ward, three were women, two were African American, one was an architect, one a professor at Rutgers University, and I appointed the first parent of a special needs student with autism,” he said. “The question is: How could that be more balanced and inclusive with an elected BOE?”
But Russo said he, too, supports a referendum.
“My mind is open, and I will contribute a balanced and experienced view to the coming debate, and let the voters decide,” he said.
Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager said she won’t be ready to decide if she supports an elected or appointed board until doing more research and talking to constituents. Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a statement released Saturday, said he hasn’t yet taken a position but loves ”seeing democracy in action," and urged residents to explore the issue thoughtfully.
Vote Montclair’s petition needed 1,020 valid signatures to send the question on an elected or appointed board to the November ballot. In a notice of sufficiency dated May, 21, Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves reported 1,396 of 2,004 signature sheets submitted on April 29 had been examined so far, with 1,033 found to be valid.
D’Amato had previously told Montclair of those 2,004 submitted signatures, 1,823 were collected digitally.
The first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state, also in Montclair and submitted by landlords seeking to force a rent control ordinance to a ballot vote, has faced a months-long court battle over the verification of signatures since they were first submitted in October 2020. The clerk disqualified several, but a judge ultimately ordered her to certify the petition; an appeals court will decide if the decision stands. If it does, the township council would either have to strike the rent control ordinance or put that matter before voters.
D’Amato said Vote Montclair would next turn its attention to moving the township’s municipal elections from May to November, in hopes of increasing voter turnout.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that under a Type II system, the public would vote on school budgets. That's true only if the budgets exceed a 2% cap on property tax growth.