In Montclair, our very own Brexit (On The Other Hand)
By RICHIE CHEVAT
For Montclair Local
Well, we did it! We fixed education in Montclair. Congratulations all around.
With the new elected school board, we have definitely made our educational establishment more … accountable? Responsive? How about elected? We can say for sure that the new school board will be much more elected than previous ones.
Feel better? Good, because that’s about all we know. Like the people of the UK voting for Brexit, we took a firm stand that will result in ... who can say? When will the first elections take place? What will happen to the repairs desperately needed for the schools? How exactly is this new system going to improve, you know … education?
It certainly sounds more democratic, which we all know is a good thing (well, most of us). But what this new system really does is establish the following qualifications for school board: Candidates will need 1) $20,000 to $30,000 to spend on an election campaign and 2) an axe to grind. Why the axe? Because why else are you going to spend $20,000 to $30,000 to win a seat on the Montclair school board?
Funny thing about axes. They make you think of words like chop, cut, hack or maul. They have labels that read, “Use in case of fire.” Never in the whole history of axes has there been one with a label that read “Use in case of guaranteeing quality education for all students.”
If you don’t think people have an axe to grind about education, perhaps I can introduce you to a little concept called Critical Race Theory. Or remind you of every argument we’ve ever had about education in this town. There’s always an axe to grind and it’s always called chop, cut or slash.
Across the country, right-wing nuts are mobilizing to storm school boards, take them over and promote insane conspiracy theories. But that would never happen in Montclair, would it? At least, not openly. School board candidates tend to have innocuous, generic slogans along the lines of “Good Schools for a Good Montclair,” or maybe “Better Schools for a Better Montclair,” or how about “The Best Schools for a …”
Well, you get the idea.
And don’t worry, it won’t just be right-wing nut jobs trying to hijack our schools. There will be more than a few good liberals with self-identified brilliant, innovative ideas for improving schools while running them like a business and employing technology to disrupt old paradigms while reducing costs and boosting efficiencies. Or something like that. On top of that, now every single school improvement, like fixing the staircases, will have to go up for a town-wide vote. That sounds like a lot of fun.
It will be up to those of us who care about guaranteeing quality education for all, which we can only hope is more than the 30 percent of residents who have students in the public schools, to mobilize ourselves in every single election and decipher which of the generic-sounding slogans represents halfway decent candidates. Or, perhaps we’ll run our own candidates — you know, “Superlative Schools for a Superlative Montclair?” I mean how hard could it be? Plus, hardly anyone votes in local elections, so we should be able to … on the other hand, it could be a lot harder than it seems.
On the other other hand, maybe the referendum didn’t go far enough. One of the main things the school board does is select the superintendent, but that doesn’t seem right, does it? To make things truly accountable and responsive we ought to elect the superintendent too, right? And what about principals? Elections for everybody!
Well, we seem to have covered everything. Wait! What about, you know, education? Every year the school board writes up a list of truly admirable goals for our schools and hands them to the (unelected!) superintendent to implement. And the superintendent does their best to make those goals a reality. For the most part, everyone involved seems to genuinely want to improve educational opportunities for our kids.
But this all happens in a constrained framework of “what is possible.” Lowering class size, raising teacher pay, adding learning specialists, universal Pre-K (which we used to have until it was cut by the axe-grinders) and a whole host of possible improvements are always off the table, for one simple reason: money. And to address that, we’d have to consider things like, “Should education be paid for by property taxes?” and “What responsibility do we have to address inequality?” and “How can schools truly guarantee quality education for all, which involves a lot of stuff beyond the control of our town, so let’s not even get into it?”
Instead, let’s celebrate. We did it!
Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.