Vote Montclair launches petition for referendum on elected school board
By ERIN ROLL
A petition aiming to bring Montclair an elected Board of Education is gaining steam.
The petition, backed by the group Vote Montclair, officially went live on Feb. 27. If successful, it would require the township to ask residents on their ballots whether Montclair should continue with its mayor-appointed school board, or have an elected board.
“After more than six months of outreach, voter surveys, legal research, fundraising and technical fiddling, I’m overjoyed to finally see voters having their say,” Vote Montclair chair Erik D’Amato said in a statement announcing the petition.
D’Amato said he received 360 “valid-looking” signature sheets in the 36 hours since the petition went live. The petition needs at least 1,020 signatures (or 15 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality at the last election) to be placed on the ballot in a special election. D’Amato said Vote Montclair organizers are hoping to get twice that.
The five petitioners are Jason Sargis, Selma Avdicevic, Beatrice Price, Rodolfo Valdez and Reginald Valentine.
The goal is to get the petition to the township by March 15 for certification, D’Amato said.
Montclair is one of only a small number of Type I school districts in New Jersey, in which the mayor appoints school board members. In the majority of school districts in the state, which are Type II districts, voters elect the members of the school board.
In Montclair’s case, Mayor Sean Spiller is also vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful statewide teachers union. During the May 2020 municipal elections, Spiller said he would “fulfil 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.”
Spiller did not respond to a request for comment on the Vote Montclair petition by press time this week.
A district can change from Type II to Type I, or vice versa, if one of two events takes place: The district school board passes a resolution to put the question to voters, or a petition supported by 15 percent of the district’s voters is submitted to get the question on the ballot. The proposed change would then have to be approved by voters in a special election, according to New Jersey School Boards Association regulations.
Five referendums have been held since the 1960s to shift Montclair to an elected board. In all of those elections, voters favored an appointed board. The most recent attempt was in 2009. At the time, Montclair was one of 46 Type I districts in New Jersey. But that number dwindled to 11 after the state moved the date of school elections from April to November to coincide with general elections. Many Type I districts changed to Type II as a result.
D’Amato told Montclair Local in August that the referendum is less about school-specific issues than it is about getting Montclair residents more involved in voting and elections.
He said a survey that the group conducted this summer found that of 333 respondents, 77 percent were in favor of an elected board.
The League of Women Voters has voiced its support for Montclair’s staying with an appointed board. In an open letter, the league said its concerns included the possibility of special interests swaying the board if it became an elected board, and that an elected board would not necessarily be more effective than an appointed one.
Estep Nagy, a parent who said he wasn’t affiliated with the petition but supported it, said after the last year “it seems impossible for the BOE to function without a vote of confidence.” The district and the Montclair Education Association have found themselves at odds, with the former suing the latter over a refusal to return to school buildings for in-person learning. That case is ongoing.
"Given the really painful tension between the union and the district and parents, I just don’t see how it builds public trust for the vice president of the New Jersey teachers union [Spiller] to appoint the BOE members who oversee the superintendent and approve the next teachers’ union contract,” Nagy said. “It feels like a guarantee of more acrimony in the district."
School board President Latifah Jannah and Vice President Priscilla Church did not return requests for comment before press time.
The petition is accessible online through Vote Montclair’s site, votemontclair.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the Type I and Type II models for school districts.