Montclair PTA Council running campaign for Montclair schools referendum
In a little under two weeks, Montclair voters will be asked to support a $187.7 million bond referendum measure to repair and upgrade the schools.
Since the school board’s September resolution that set the referendum, board members and district administrators have been hosting town hall-style meetings, participating in information sessions and posting details of the referendum on the district website.
But as they’ve said many times, the superintendent and members of the board are required to remain neutral, simply educating voters on the upcoming referendum instead of asking them to vote in a particular way.
So the referendum campaign — the phone calls, door-knocking, flyer distributing and arguing in favor of the bonds — has fallen on the shoulders of the Montclair PTA Council.
The PTA Council is made up of parents across the district who work to empower the school-based PTAs, support the district and superintendent, and share information.
“We are by default running this campaign,” PTA Council President Tessie Thomas said at an Oct. 20 wine klatch to discuss the referendum. “We didn't sign up for it. It just fell into our laps. We are doing it.”
After the district’s first town hall Sept. 29, the PTA Council hit the ground running, and it has yet to slow down. The group is driven by a core belief, Thomas told Montclair Local — when information is transferred and shared with the community, Montclair automatically does the right thing.
And after two years of attending school board meetings and advocating for infrastructure investment, the PTA Council will “do anything” to persuade people to support the referendum question, she said.
The group issued a call-out for volunteers and heard back from more than 100 people interested in helping.
“Our volunteers are just amazing,” Thomas told Montclair Local. “Each of them has their own specialty or each of them has their own interest. That's how we work. We have designers from very professional, very high-end designers to students.”
In 2½ days, the group and other volunteers created a referendum website, linked from the PTA website, to serve as an information hub. From designing the website to collecting information to checking and rechecking everything before it was published, the project was “not easy,” Thomas said. But the final product is clear and comprehensive and continues to grow as new information about the referendum measure is shared, she said.
“We designed the website in such a way that if it is someone who has only five minutes, they get an overall summary at the very top, and if they are interested in going into details, we have a lot of details,” she said.
That idea, catering to different audiences, has been front of mind when thinking about how to bring people to the website, Thomas said. For those who are technology-savvy, the PTA Council has been providing a QR code linked to the website and pushing out the link on social media. For those who may not be as technologically inclined, the group has been handing out information at local events, posting flyers in storefronts and distributing lawn signs.
The PTA Council wants to make sure it reaches everyone in Montclair, not just those with a direct connection to the school district, Thomas said.
Efforts to persuade people to support the referendum measure include a letter-writing campaign, where volunteers send letters to the editor to Montclair Local; short endorsement videos that are posted online with why different individuals around town — including a district teacher, parents, longtime Montclair residents and Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill — support the bonds, and coffee klatches during which small groups meet in people’s homes to discuss their questions and thoughts on the bonding measure. The PTA Council also ran a full-page ad in last week’s Montclair Local asking voters to support the referendum measure.
Funds for the PTA Council’s work, including the flyers and yard signs, have come from a GoFundMe page set with a goal of $6,000. In a page update posted Oct. 20, fundraiser organizer Evan Mandery wrote that $4,340 of the more than $4,900 raised had already been spent — $2,334 on 350 lawn signs and stands, $850 on the Montclair Local ad, $500 on a Google ad and $655 on printing of flyers, handouts and window displays.
In his update, Mandery said the group was out of yard signs and has 30 pending requests. The group hopes to purchase 100 more signs and print more handouts in the final weeks before the election, he wrote.
As of Tuesday, the page had raised $5,200. There have been 45 donations, including from Montclair Board of Education member Melanie Deysher, board candidates Yvonne Bouknight and Brian Fleischer, who are running in the Nov. 8 election, and Thomas, according to the page.
The PTA Council is now looking for more volunteers to help go door-to-door in Montclair, spreading the word about the referendum, Thomas said at the Oct. 20 wine klatch.
“What we learned is people buy the lawn signs, put them in their lawn, but they do not go and vote,” she said. “So we need people to go vote.”
The PTA Council’s lawn signs are free.
Armed with voter lists, the PTA Council plans to make its way across Montclair, informing and persuading residents to support the referendum question home by home.
Since students returned to school following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PTA Council has been focused on collaboration, Thomas told Montclair Local. Collaboration with administrators, with staff, with students and with the community. And in running the referendum campaign, collaboration has remained central.
“We are working toward the same goal, and the goal is to make it better for the kids, the staff, everyone,” she said. “We're focused on how we can collaborate and move things forward.”
If the referendum measure passes, the PTA Council members will take some time to be with their families, “because honestly we haven’t done that,” she said.
And if it does not pass, it would “be very disappointing to be a Montclair citizen,” Thomas said.
The PTA Council will host a Candid Community Conversation about the referendum Thursday night, Oct. 27, at 6 p.m. in the Montclair High School auditorium.