By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

On Tuesday, Montclair residents will make history as they head to the polls to vote in the township’s first-ever Board of Education election.

The nine candidates running in the March 8 election for two school board seats — an election that came about because voters overwhelmingly approved an elected BOE over an appointed board last November — are similar in many ways.

They are parents of students currently attending or graduated from Montclair schools, therapists, former, current and aspiring educators. They are passionate about giving Montclair students the best possible education. 

But the candidates — Yvonne Bouknight, Melanie Deysher, Phaedra Dunn, Jerold Freier, Noah Gale, Lauren Quinn Griffin, Holly Shaw, George C. Simpson and Jennette Williams — are split on what the board’s top priorities should be, according to comments they shared with Montclair Local. 

Montclair Local sent the candidates a series of questions about themselves and the most pressing issues facing the board. The responses are available in full here.

There is consensus on two priorities — the urgent need to address the district’s aging infrastructure and the desire to improve the district’s special education program.

In their responses to Montclair Local, the candidates wrote about the pressing need to address long-overdue building repairs. Pursuing a bond measure to pay for infrastructure repairs was broadly supported, but Simpson and Williams also recommended looking for outside-the-box revenue streams via community partnerships. 

During a Monday, Feb. 28, community forum hosted by the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, the candidates said the district must continue to follow through with its response to a May audit of the special education program

The audit found racial disparities in how often children are classified as needing services, problems with communication and uneven experiences across the district’s schools.

The candidates discussed short-term and long-term goals — standardizing a chain of command, creating consistency across the district’s programs, promoting a culture of inclusion — all with an overarching focus on communication with families and support for teachers. 

But beyond those two topic areas, the candidates are divided on top priorities for the board.

Bouknight, Deysher and Dunn said they want to focus on addressing the achievement gap and equity for all students. Shaw and Williams are focused on mental health. Freier’s priority is the budget. Gale said the priorities should be keeping schools open and eliminating standardized tests. For Griffin, it’s accountability. And for Simpson, it’s communication. 

Voters will choose among the candidates to fill terms that will end in January of 2024 after Montclair’s recent conversion from a Type I school district with a mayor-appointed board of seven members to a Type II district with an elected board of nine. 

Candidates' answers on infrastructure, communication, learning loss

Bouknight

For Bouknight, an educator with more than 40 years of experience and parent of Montclair High School graduates, addressing the achievement gap is the top priority. The district should focus on and implement recommendations provided in a 2015 achievement gap report created by Montclair parents, educators and community members, she said.

Some of the recommendations, including the creation of an administrative position to specifically address questions related to equity, have already been implemented. But with schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and his team of administrators settled in, Bouknight wants to revisit the data.

“Now that we have a permanent superintendent and an assistant superintendent of equity and achievement, it is imperative to use the data gathered, coupled with new data to establish clear goals and benchmarks,” she said.

Dunn

Dunn, a licensed therapist and district parent, said her top priority would be to strive to exceed equitable educational standards, especially when it comes to addressing concerns regarding the special education population and the achievement gap. 

“As a district, we must insist we go above and beyond state mandates,”she said. “Addressing these concerns benefits all learners in that it allows for higher-quality instruction and access for  all students.”

To hold itself to those higher standards, the board must constantly review its services, ensure consistency across schools and reflect the voices of teachers, students, parents and administrators, she said. 

Dunn is one of two candidates — along with Deysher — who is backed by Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put a question on last November’s ballot asking if Montclair should have an elected board.

Deysher

Deysher, an occupational therapist and district parent, said she wants the board to be focused on ensuring educational excellence for all students. 

“This starts with strong instruction in math, reading and writing in the early grades,” she said. “This is when kids form their self-image as someone who can learn, who can succeed and who likes coming to school.”

Educational excellence also requires that teachers are getting the resources they need, including coaching, support and time, Deysher said. 

Shaw

Shaw, a sommelier and district parent, also said support for students is the main priority, but specifically for their mental health. 

“As a community, we must address the mental health fallout and learning loss from COVID-19,” she said. “I will work to identify grants and programs that will provide mental health resources for our students.”

Shaw said the board must also address the district’s opportunity gap and look at the pandemic’s impact on low-income students.

Williams

Williams, a career educator who has worked for the Montclair district in many roles, identified a few top priorities, the first of which was mental health. The board must create a strategic plan, with goals, outcomes and bench markers to address mental health issues, she said. 

Closing the achievement gap and developing student profiles of learning traits are also priorities, Williams said. 

She recently served as the education director of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area. The organization said she has temporarily stepped down from her committee chair role, and will do so permanently if elected. The League said it does not endorse any candidate.

Simpson

The top priority for Simpson, a creative director of more than 30 years and district parent, is reestablishing communication with administrators, teachers, parents and residents.

“This will improve transparency, help us generate support for initiatives, give everyone in town a voice, rebuild trust and restore the board’s legitimacy,” he said. 

Simpson suggested working closely with local media and increasing the Board of Education’s social media presence. He said the board should also prioritize supporting teachers and addressing the achievement gap. 

All of the candidates spoke to the importance of bettering communication in the district during a Feb. 17 virtual forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and the Montclair chapter of the NAACP.

Griffin

For Griffin, a district parent and long-term substitute at Northeast School,
accountability should be the priority for the board.

“We need to establish a set of goals and set timelines for achieving them,” she said.

That framework will provide space to address other issues in the district, including curriculum and staffing, Griffin said. 

Freier

Freier, an adjunct business professor at Montclair State University and lecturer at Rutgers and Caldwell University, wants to prioritize the board’s planning, but in his case, the focus would be on the budget. He has previously served on the Montclair school board, the Township Council and the Planning Board.

The majority of the school district’s budget consists of salaries and benefits, which increase each year despite a cap on how much school property taxes can be raised, he said. The district must come up with a plan to “avoid a fiscal crisis,” he said. 

Developing a program to strengthen leadership within the district — hiring leaders with outstanding track records and implementing career development plans for promising staff — should also be a priority, Freier said.

Gale

Gale’s top priorities as a board member would be to make sure schools stay open despite any future increases in COVID-19 cases and to eliminate standardized testing. He also emphasized the board must be transparent with its decision-making and improve its communication. 

“I know what works and what is detrimental to having a smooth and civilized gathering where things are accomplished, instead of a place where people argue a lot,” he said.

During the Feb. 23 board meeting, Gale said he supported keeping the mask mandate in Montclair schools — “what Governor Murphy is doing is a huge mistake.” 

Gale, a Montclair High School graduate and Montclair State University student, would be the youngest person ever to serve on the board and its first college student. 

How to vote

Polling sites will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on March 8. Polling locations are searchable at the New Jersey Division of Elections website. Contact the municipal clerk’s office for polling location questions at 973-509-4900.

March 1 was the deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot for the special election via mail. Monday, March 7 at 3 p.m. is the deadline to apply for vote-by-mail ballot in person or by an authorized messenger.