Lots of open questions as Montclair moves to elected school board
BY TALIA WIENER
After this week’s referendum, there are big changes ahead for the Montclair Board of Education’s lineup — as well as for its plan to move ahead with tens of millions of dollars in school improvements. But there are also plenty of open questions as to how and when it’ll go about effecting each.
“The board will be meeting with our representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association to address these issues,” Board of Education president Latifah Jannah told Montclair Local Wednesday.
Montclair voters approved changing their school district from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed board of education to a Type II system with an appointed one. Once the election is certified, that will add two positions to the board, for a total of nine.
And the process used for capital improvements will change. Instead of sending projects to a separate Board of School Estimate to fix costs, and then the Township Council to bond for them, the school board will have to put bonds before voters in regular or special elections. The BoSE itself will be dissolved. And that means the Aug. 16 vote the school board took to request $60 million worth of work (later presenting the BoSE with a longer-term plan for $150 million spread over years, and prioritizing $15.5 million for urgent HVAC projects) is moot.
But there’s not a lot of direction in state law about how or when to go about the addition of two new members to the board after such a change, Carl Tanksley, general counsel for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said during a presentation at a Sept. 20 Board of Education meeting.
“Some would say the statute provides enough flexibility for the board to structure the election the way they need to have happen,” Tanksley said at the meeting. “Others would say the legislature punted on this issue and will let you figure it out on your own. There is just not a lot of guidance in the statute about what the process is.”
The language of the referendum itself — a measure that seems to have been favored by voters in each of the 31 Montclair districts where unofficial results are available so far (out of 35 districts total), and by about 70% of voters throughout the township — offers little detail about when two new members would be added. The referendum question says only there will be “regularly-scheduled annual November elections.” An interpretive statement further clarifies three seats will be up each November, starting next year — with the current members serving out what’s left of their mayor-appointed terms.
Tanksley, at the September meeting, said board members with terms set to expire in May of 2022 would serve until the following January’s reorganization meeting, after the first November general election with board races on the ballot. The terms of three current board members — Jannah, vice president Priscilla Church and Alfred Davis Jr. — were set to expire in May 2022 in the Type I system.
The move brings Montclair in line with the majority of New Jersey — 97% of state districts are Type II. Port Republic voters also supported a switch to a Type II district Tuesday, 298 to 139, according to data from Atlantic County.
(In all cases, the tallies described here include only Election Day results, early voting results and mail-in ballots processed so far. Outstanding mail-in ballots and provisional ballots have yet to be added into the totals.)
The move also pulls influence over the school district away from the mayor, until now responsible for board appointments, and the Township Council, until now responsible for approving bonds. Some council members also sat on the BoSE.
For some voters, dissatisfaction with current officials — the school board, the BoSE and Mayor Sean Spiller (who is also the president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teacher’s union, a set of roles some argue presents a serious conflict for the person tasked with appointing board members), played a key part in their decision to approve the referendum. On social media, at public meetings and in the letters pages of Montclair Local, many said they were upset about years of infrastructure issues, the handling of the return to schools amid the COVID pandemic, a rapid succession of six superintendents since 2012 and a lack of spending on what they said were urgent needs.
Tanksley has not yet responded to a voicemail left Wednesday, after this week’s election, with his office. NJSBA Chief Public Affairs Officer Janet Bamford has also not yet responded to an email sent Wednesday.
Erik D’Amato, founder of Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put the referendum about a district change on the ballot, deferred questions on the process ahead to Township Attorney Ira Karasick and school board legal counsel Isabel Machado. But Karasick said since the township no longer has a role in school district governance, he couldn’t comment. Machado has not yet responded to multiple voicemails and emails sent to her office about the elections process since Oct. 19.
In November 2016, Orange Township voted to switch from a Type I to a Type II district. The city held a special election in March 2017 to elect two additional board members, one position with an eight-month term and the other with a term lasting one year and eight months, according to a 2017 notice from the city clerk. The term lengths were adjusted to create a board with three-year, rotating terms, taking into account remaining term lengths of current board members.
Since 2019, Orange has elected three members to the school board each year, for three-year terms in office.
The Board of Education may call a special election “when in its judgement the interests of the schools require it,” a school election guidance document created in 2020 by the NJSBA says. The election may take place on the fourth Tuesday in January, second Tuesday in March, last Tuesday in September or second Tuesday in December. The document describes some issues around special elections for filling vacancies in some circumstances — for instance, after ties or issues with election procedures — but doesn’t address what happens when new seats are added to a board, as is happening in Montclair.
School officials had hoped to get the BoSE and Township Council to approve $15.5 million in HVAC upgrades before Tuesday’s election. But that process saw delays — with school board members saying they were waiting on the BoSE to schedule meetings, and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who chairs the BoSE, saying the district went for long stretches without communicating or requesting meetings, making it impossible to move ahead. He’d also said it wasn’t clear what exactly district leaders were seeking after first approving a $60M request, but then following up with a $150 million longer-term plan.
Now, if the board chooses to move ahead, it’ll need to put a capital improvement bond before voters, either in a special election or by waiting until the next general election, in November.
Special election costs are borne by the school district, while general election costs are borne by the county, Tanksley said at the September meeting.
Board member Eric Scherzer — one of three members Spiller appointed this year, along with Crystal Hopkins and Kathryn Weller-Demming (after appointing Allison Silverstein in 2020) — declined to comment. Church, Davis, Silverstein, Hopkins and Weller-Demming have not yet responded to questions sent to their district emails Wednesday about the transition to Type II.
Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and district Business Administrator Nicholas Cipriano have also not yet responded to multiple messages sent to their offices Wednesday about the transition to Type II. The school district is closed Thursday and Friday while staff members attend a New Jersey Education Association conference.
In September, Montclair High School graduate and Montclair State University student Noah Gale, known to many as an advocate for those with disabilities, announced he planned to run for school board, if the switch to a Type II occurred.
Gale has a personal interest in “preserving and improving the quality of the school system” because of the positive experience he had in Montclair schools, he told Montclair Local.
“I can represent different groups in the community and ensure that others have a voice in making educational and administrative decisions,” Gale said in an email Wednesday. “As a member, I can be a conduit for the concerns and interests of teachers and parents dealing with students with learning differences and challenges.”
Gale said he would run on a nonpartisan platform. He aims to be the youngest person ever to serve on the board, and the first college student on the board.