By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

A March special election called by the Montclair Board of Education will fill two seats newly added to the board. But after the recent death of member Alfred Davis Jr., it remains unclear if a third position will be added to the ballot. 

The board approved the March election earlier this month, intended to fill the two seats created when voters last month approved a conversion from a “Type I” to a “Type II” school district system — doing away with mayoral appointment of school board members and expanding the body from seven to nine members. Going forward, members will be selected in elections, as they are in 97% of New Jersey municipalities.

Community members who want to run for the Montclair Board of Election will need to have their petitions — with at least 10 signatures, one of which can be their own — submitted by Jan. 17 at 4 p.m. The only individual so far to announce a run is Noah Gale, a 2018 graduate of Montclair High School. He aims to be the youngest person ever to serve on the board, and the first college student on the board.

In regular elections every November, voters will fill three seats on the board, each for a three-year term. 

The seats of current board president Latifah Jannah, vice president Priscilla Church and Davis would have expired in May 2022 under the now-abandoned Type 1 system. Instead, those seats will be the first up for grabs in a regular election, in November 2022. The terms will conclude in January 2023, when the board’s reorganization meeting takes place.

The two board members selected in the March 8 special election will each serve a term of one year and nine months before joining the normal cycle of three-year terms. Their seats will be up for election in November of 2023 along with the one currently held by Allison Silverstein; the next terms for those seats would start in January 2024. 

The terms of board members Kathryn Weller-Demming, Crystal Hopkins and Eric Scherzer, all appointed by Mayor Sean Spiller earlier this year, will next go before voters in November 2024, and the next terms for those seats will begin in January 2025. 

Under the new Type II system, the board is tasked with filling Davis’ seat within 65 days of its vacancy. Davis died Dec. 2 — making the effective deadline to fill his seat Feb. 5.

The law allows the board wide discretion in appointing a member to fill a vacancy, Carl Tanksley, general counsel for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said at the Wednesday, Dec. 8 Montclair Board of Education meeting. 

“You can have an interview process, you can have a selection process where you identify candidates, you can have a nominating committee, you can draw names out of a hat,” Tanksley said at the meeting. “It's really wide open as to what the board can do in filling that vacancy.” 

If the board does not fill the seat within the 65 days, the Essex County superintendent of schools would choose a board member. 

But with the special election scheduled for March, about a month after the 65 days would expire, it is unclear if the board must appoint someone within the time frame or instead place another board position on the ballot, a possible rule exception due to the unique circumstances, Charlene Peterson, Essex County representative for the New Jersey School Boards Association, told Montclair Local Thursday. 

And if the board does appoint a new member, the term length remains uncertain.

The law states that board appointees remain in their position until the next election, which usually takes place in November, Peterson said at the Wednesday meeting. But with an upcoming special election in March, it is unclear if an appointee’s term would end then.

The district has asked for guidance from the county superintendent on how the board should move forward with the appointment, Jannah said. The information will be presented at the board’s next meeting on Dec. 20, Jannah said. 

“We find ourselves in an unusual situation,” Peterson said at the meeting. “And at this point, there is no additional clarity.”

The board won’t include a referendum to advance a large capital improvement bond on the March ballot, since the process to create the referendum takes about six months. But efforts to move forward with the bond process — funding for the first part of a multimillion-dollar project to overhaul aging buildings throughout the district — have begun.

Under state law, the next date after March when a referendum could be held doesn’t take place until September. The board, though, is looking to place the capital improvement bond referendum on the ballot at the November 2022 general election, Church said at the Wednesday meeting. 

The district architect, Parette Somjen Architects, has begun work on a timeline to establish what needs to be done to have an application submitted to the state by May 6, the latest the board could submit materials to be on schedule for the November election, Church said. 

Once an application is submitted, the board will hear back about what funding would be covered by the state and what costs would go to the taxpayers, she said. 

The request for a bond attorney has also been written and is under review by board attorney Isabel Machado, Machado said at the meeting. She recommended that the request remain open until after the holidays.