By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The founder of Vote Montclair said in a message to his mailing list Friday he'd "let down friends and collaborators" when he wrote a piece criticizing “education unions and union-dominated political machines" for protecting seniority among educators — a piece that prompted some of the people most closely associated with the group to quit it.

"It felt good, I admit, to speak my mind candidly, but I did not think, as I should have, about the cost," Erik D'Amato wrote in the message Friday. He said writing the piece "was not in the best interest of the group I had created and urged others to believe in, or the core issues it was built around, and those should have taken priority."

D'Amato's piece — published by NJ Education Report, an activist education site that has frequently been deeply critical of the New Jersey Education Association, one of the state's largest and most influential lobbying groups — argued this month's first-ever Montclair school election was a "humiliation" for Mayor (and NJEA President) Sean Spiller.

A petition supported by Vote Montclair had prompted the November referendum, in which voters chose to change Montclair's school district from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed board of seven members to an elected board of nine. Vote Montclair had also backed and campaigned for the candidates who bested a field of nine for the two newly created seats in this month's election — Phaedra Dunn and Melanie Deysher. Both those two new board members and former board member Sergio Gonzalez, who co-chaired Vote Montclair — left the group after D'Amato's piece was published this week.

The piece argued voters were ready for a change after seeing unions protect the "often weak performance on the part of teachers in, or past, the twilight of their careers." Without naming him, the piece referenced Dan Gill (a teacher for more than 50 years at Glenfield Middle School, as well as the father of County Commissioner, Montclair Democrats Chairman and high-profile campaign manager Brendan Gill), who'd taken part with D'Amato in a forum on the November referendum organized by Councilman David Cummings (who opposed the school district type change). It said Dan Gill was the "featured debater brought in to defend the status quo," describing him as a "teacher who had been at the school since the mid-1970s, before many of the voters we were trying to convince were born."

It also criticized, without naming her, retired Montclair public schools educator and grant writer Jennette Williams — who'd been among the nine candidates — alleging the “local political machine felt duty-bound to get behind the candidacy of a recently retired teacher of the same vintage, who was widely understood to have been among the most highly paid and lightly worked employees in the district." Williams told Montclair Local she found that characterization hurtful, and said if D'Amato thought she didn't work hard in her career, “he has no idea of my history" — saying she worked two jobs for 15 years, earned graduate degrees while working and introduced programs such as a social-emotional professional development program to Montclair. Williams — also the education director of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area (she put that role on hold while campaigning, but has since returned to it) — received just under 6% of the vote in a field of nine candidates, putting her in seventh place.

Also among those quitting Vote Montclair after D'Amato's piece was published: Obdulia Miranda-Woodley — who’d been on the committee of petitioners supported by Vote Montclair in another of its efforts, seeking to move municipal elections from May to November (a petition the then-township attorney rejected, saying it had several technical defects, though the group disputed some of those issues and said the attorney should have flagged them in earlier communication). She said by email she was stepping away because D’Amato’s “comments about the role of the union are antithetical to mine.”

Kendra Johnson, a Montclair parent who’d been part of Vote Montclair’s candidate advisory committee, said she still stands by the two new board members the group supported, but didn't share the views in D'Amato's piece and would no longer be affiliated with the group.

"I support our teachers and the public schools and have nothing but admiration for their dedication.”

D'Amato, in his Friday message, said he stands by what he wrote about unions and seniority, but that he should have known better than to write it.

"This was not the right message, in the right words, at the right time," he said.

He touted the group's signature achievement — the referendum that gave Montclair an elected school board. And while he said the group wasn't able last year to prompt another referendum on moving municipal elections, "our efforts there brought the shortcoming to light, and it is now very much on the community agenda, along with a greater interest in accountability, transparency and honesty in local government."

He said in the time ahead, the most pressing issue would be to "ensure that a pending drive to modify the township’s form of government is conducted fairly and objectively, and not with the goal of furthering the interests of a few insiders, and results in local elections being held when people actually vote."

Several local officials and political insiders in recent months have expressed support for reexamining Montclair's form of government, in which the mayor has no executive power; day-to-day township operations all fall under the authority of a township manager selected by the mayor and council. A change in form of government could also potentially mean moving elections to November. Cary Chevat — a cofounder of progressive lobbying group BlueWaveNJ, secretary of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP and corresponding secretary of the Montclair Democratic County Committee — had argued for a change in a December opinion piece published by Montclair Local (he said he's only been speaking for himself, not those groups, in writing that opinion piece).

D'Amato's piece was published Monday, with a note describing him as “a corporate investigator and writer and the founder of Vote Montclair, a good government group. ”At some point after its initial publication, a note was added to say the views D’Amato expressed “are his own.”

D’Amato told Montclair Local earlier this week he’s not sure where the departures leave the group’s membership, saying people had always made fun of his group for being a loosely defined “hippy collective, but it’s a hippy collective.” And he said it might need to take a break before potentially reengaging local issues.

“It was always going to be hard to try to back centrist candidates while remaining an insurgent force not afraid to ruffle feathers, and there was always a plan to part ways after the election if we were successful, owing to the long history of political clubs interfering in the operation of the BOE,” he read from a prepared statement. “I just accelerated this separation, and made it more stark, by getting back into the fray so soon after the election.”

Chevat — who said he'd voted to have an elected school board and was, again, only speaking for himself — had told Montclair Local D'Amato's NJ Education Report piece stunned him.

“After winning an election, I don’t understand why Mr. D’Amato would go after these two educators who dedicated their lives to educating the students of Montclair,” he said. “That’s political suicide.”

D’Amato has been outspoken about local politics — and Spiller’s NJEA role — before. In August, he’d been part of a protest outside the MC Hotel, where Spiller was holding a campaign fundraiser. He and other attendees (including Miranda-Woodley, one of the people leaving Vote Montclair) said they were objecting to big money and outside influence in local politics.

Vote Montclair spent $623.57 on Facebook ads for Dunn and Deysher, matching a similar amount the candidates themselves spent on yard signs, according to a statement by D’Amato and Gonzalez, posted the day after the election to the Vote Montclair website. In addition to the funding, Vote Montclair members contributed “many hours of coordinating, outreach, tech-fiddling and other work, all of it 100% unpaid.” Vote Montclair helped organize meetups with the candidates, and sent joint messages from them to its email mailing list.

A Vote Montclair statement earlier this month — by D'Amato and Gonzalez, still a co-chair at the time — said the group would “not be again playing the role of campaign manager.”

In their own statement this week, Dunn and Deysher said they wouldn’t generally “address people or matters that are loud and wrong, however this time we find it appropriate, because there is so much at stake.” They said no one speaks for either of them.

“As people who are builders of consensus, who often represent disenfranchised voices, it is important that we state with conviction that what was said was tasteless and out of line, and again, does not reflect any of our opinions, views or values,” they wrote. “We stand by our teachers and believe that teachers should have a voice and a seat at the table.”

The new board members said they hadn’t imagined having to make such a statement, “most especially when we thought we were coming together with neighbors/people who wanted to impact change.” They said they’d been idealistic, “and we have learned a hurtful and valuable lesson.”

They continued: “As long as people sit behind cell phones and laptops and spew commentary with broad and sweeping generalizations, lacking factual information; we will never get anywhere as a society. We as your neighbors and fellow community members apologize for the hostile and hurtful comments made by this individual.”

D'Amato, in the Friday message, said he was grateful for the previous support Vote Montclair had seen, and "I am sorry if I betrayed it, or if this apology seems insufficient."

"Either way, please, and most importantly, don’t let any mistakes I’ve made become a reason for your voice to be any less loud than we all need it to be," he wrote.