Mayor lets union run Montclair school board, departing member says
Editor's Note: A new version of this story has been posted, reflecting updated comments from Mayor Sean Spiller, who described aseertions departing Board of Education member Sergio Gonzalez made as "false and puzzling."
Sergio Gonzalez isn’t leaving the Montclair Township Board of Education quietly.
In a five-page prepared statement given in part at Monday night’s school board meeting, he accused Mayor Sean Spiller of letting the local teacher’s union “essentially appoint” the same school board with which it negotiates salaries, staffing and contracts. Gonzalez claimed the mayor had the union interview an outgoing board member up for consideration to continue — though he wouldn't say who. One incoming member has told Montclair Local the mayor didn’t direct him to discuss the prospect of joining with anyone.
Gonzalez accused the mayor of working to undermine Jonathan Ponds, the latest of several superintendents the district has seen in recent years. And Gonzalez said he was excluded for consideration for another term because of his own support for an elected school board — instead of one appointed by the mayor.
“Last week, Mayor Spiller provided one final surprise when he decided to terminate my tenure after just 20 months of service,” Gonzalez, appointed in 2019 by then-Mayor Robert Jackson, said. Gonzalez was selected to finish out the remainder of Laura Hertzog’s three-year term, after she resigned citing what she described as a toxic culture on the school board.
Board President Latifah Jannah cut Gonzalez’s statement short Monday night. The full statement, as provided by Gonzalez in advance of the meeting, appears below. It was also posted online Monday night, as the meeting continued, by Vote Montclair, a group seeking to establish an elected board.
Spiller announced April 15 he’d appointed Crystal Hopkins, Eric Scherzer and Kathryn Weller-Demming to replace departing board members Jessica de Koninck, Eve Robinson and Gonzalez. The board’s vice president, Priscilla Church, said Monday members already knew at least two of those whose terms were up wouldn’t be returning.
Spiller is vice president of the statewide New Jersey Education Association, and slated to become its president in a term to begin in September. When campaigning for mayor last year, he said he’d “fulfill my duties and appoint independent Board of Education members who share the goal of providing the best possible education for our students at the very best value to taxpayers.” The selection of the new slate means for the first time, a majority of members will be those Spiller has chosen. The mayor made his first appointment, of board member Allison Silverstein, last year.
Montclair is just one of 14 New Jersey communities in which the mayor appoints school board members; the vast majority of school boards are elected directly by the public. Vote Montclair has been circulating a petition seeking to establish an elected board, while the local League of Women Voters supports continuing the appointment system.
The board lineup changes — and Gonzalez’s accusations — come after months that saw difficult interactions between the school district and the NJEA, along with the local Montclair Education Association. Citing safety concerns, staffers in the MEA refused a district plan that would have returned them and students to school buildings in January for a hybrid learning schedule, after nearly a year of remote education in the coronavirus pandemic. The district sued the MEA, and the parties eventually settled — with the school system agreeing to provide more information on facilities and practices, and the teachers agreeing to return. Elementary schools began their hybrid schedule April 12.
“I knew my reappointment was not certain given how outspoken I had been about getting the children back in the buildings, but a part of me believed the mayor would live up to his campaign promise of an independent board,” Gonzalez said. “On the other hand, his decision allowed me to say publicly what I saw and learned while serving on the body that is legally charged with setting education policy in Montclair’s public schools.”
Gonzalez said he knows “at least one outgoing board member was asked to appear before the [Montclair Education Association] president as a condition of reappointment.” Gonzalez didn’t say which of the outgoing board members he meant, and later told Montclair Local he couldn’t say without violating that person’s trust.
But De Koninck had previously announced she wasn’t planning another term, and told Montclair Local Monday she submitted a written letter to resign following her term “some time ago." Robinson told Montclair Local Monday she wouldn’t be available to discuss the transition until Wednesday (which is after the newspaper’s deadline for its April 22 print edition). She didn’t address Gonzalez’s allegations directly at the board meeting.
'Broad cross section of stakeholders'
Spiller, in an email to Montclair Local Tuesday morning, didn’t directly answer whether the MEA had a role in selecting board members.
“As I would hope is logical for anyone hoping for consideration to the board, each BOE member spoke with a broad cross section of stakeholders in the hope of preparing for their potential new role,” he said.
And Scherzer said he, personally, did exactly that. The incoming board member said he spoke to several people involved in the township and its schools, before deciding to apply. But he said that wasn’t done at the mayor’s direction — it was for his own sake, exploring the possibility of joining the board.
Scherzer said if the MEA was a part of his vetting process, he wasn’t aware of it. And he said hopes his professional work and associations in the township — for instance, in volunteer work with the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, and with the public school system itself — would demonstrate “my ability and neutrality, and my ability to be an effective school board member.”
He pointed, in part, to his work in management for the Committee of Interns and Residents, a local of the Service Employees International Union that represents physicians and fellows. As a manager, he sat across the negotiating table from the organization’s own union representation, from the Communications Workers of America.
He cited the difficulties and challenges the board and teacher’s union have faced in recent months.
“I think one of the main things I bring to the table is my ability to manage and bring together, in face of those challenges,” Scherzer said.
The mayor said he was grateful to the new members for their willingness to serve, “and confident that under their stewardship the future of Montclair Public Schools is brighter than ever.” Montclair Local had reached out to the mayor with questions about the selection process before Gonzalez made his statement public, but the mayor’s reply came afterward.
Spiller said he didn’t think it would be “appropriate to betray confidences of those who expressed interest in serving on the BOE but were not ultimately appointed,” but was proud of his selections.
Montclair Local has sent him a further message asking for response to Gonzalez’s specific statements.
MEA President Petal Robertson — a candidate for NJEA secretary-treasurer, with state union results expected to be announced shortly — has not yet returned messages left Monday seeking comment on and union involvement in the appointment process.
Gonzalez, in his statement, said the MEA and NJEA “effectively appoints the members of the Board of Education and, effectively, Mayor Spiller controls the Board of School Estimate. The Board of School Estimate is a separate body that votes on the school budget. Under Montclair’s form of government, the mayor appoints Board of Education members and typically sits on the Board of School Estimate — though the Township Council late last year approved having Deputy Mayor William Hurlock take that seat instead. In 2015, a group calling itself Montclair Kids First successfully sued to have Spiller removed from the Board of School Estimate, alleging his role with the NJEA was a conflict. Montclair Kids First’s members included Matthew Frankel, now a member of Montclair Local’s governing board.
Gonzalez said the MEA had essentially usurped the school board’s power — “while the board of education is, according to law, the local body that sets school policy, the BOE’s power and independence today is to a great extent fictional.” He accused the MEA of negotiating in bad faith during the debate over return to schools, and of influencing the board to prioritize contractual teacher salary increases over efficiencies and facility improvements that could also help students.
“Among the many other forms of dysfunction I discovered was the large number of teachers with light class loads, some teaching as few as two periods out of the standard five,” he said.
The departing board member also said the new appointments “starkly failed to provide representation” to Montclair’s growing Latino and Asian American populations.
“As for why Mayor Spiller wanted me gone, and why he and some others apparently want Dr. Ponds gone, the answer should also not be much of a surprise: money, perks and power,” Gonzalez said.
And Gonzalez said those who describe him as "speaking out of anger at not being reappointed are 100% correct. I am angry — angry at being removed from the BOE because I dared to represent the interests of our children, rather than a political machine."
Church, after hearing Gonzalez’s comments Monday night, said she was “disappointed at what appears to be the new criteria for vetting a board member.”
“Yes we're here to work with labor … but it is important that the BOE is allowed the autonomy to respect and represent the community," she said.
Jannah said the board takes comments from the public to give residents “three minutes of speaking truth to the board.” The board’s allotted time for its own members’ comments gives them the same opportunity, she said.
“Those were truths that [Gonzalez] felt needed to be spoken,” she said.
De Koninck noted that the three incoming board members were in the audience Monday night.
"This is as good as any an opportunity to see how interesting meetings are," she said.
Spiller, in announcing his board appointments last week, said the three new members would “bring a diversity of experience and expertise that will enrich the board’s decision-making processes. But most importantly, they each share the goal of providing the absolute best possible education for our students at the most value to taxpayers.”
Hopkins is the upper school manager of operations at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and she has two children enrolled in the Montclair schools. She is also a 2006 Montclair High School graduate, where she participated in the Civics and Government Institute, Peer Leadership, and Student Government. She holds degrees in business administration and management from Ashford University, and pursued a degree in mass communications and media studies at Virginia State University.
“Montclair Public schools are a treasure,” Hopkins said in the mayor’s press release. “I look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure every Montclair student has access to the abundance of opportunities and formative experiences that I enjoyed in our district.”
Weller-Demming serves on the board of trustees for the Montclair Child Development Center. She also served on the township council as councilor-at-large from 2008 to 2012, including a term as deputy mayor from 2011 to 2012. She studied at Hampshire College and at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
“I am humbled by this opportunity to serve students, families, and our entire school community,” Weller-Demming said in the release. “In these incredibly challenging times, there are great opportunities to innovate and strive for further excellence in our Montclair Public Schools. As a student, I received a world-class education in Montclair, and I am deeply grateful to the many individuals who together made my experiences possible.”
She also told Montclair Local in an email she hopes “to bring my deep love for our Montclair Public Schools to engage with all of our stakeholder communities, and I hope to focus on equity and inclusion, further building on the diversity that has long been our strength and hallmark.”
Scherzer is presently a senior adviser for Vot-ER, a healthcare-based voter registration organization. Prior to that, he worked in leadership positions with Service Employees International Union’s Committee of Interns and Residents, and with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union. He holds degrees in occupational safety and health from Hunter College, and history and political science from Brown University.
“I intend to work with the other board members, the Superintendent, teachers and staff, parents, students, and all other parts of our community to address persistent racial disparities so that our schools can live up to their promise of providing a world-class education to all,” Scherzer said.
The Board of Education’s reorganization meeting, when new members will take their seats, will be held on May 17.