Vote Montclair members quit after founder criticizes school unions for protecting seniority
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Update, March 18: Vote Montclair founder Erik D'Amato says he's sorry for writing the piece that prompted many of his group's members to quit.
Several people closely associated with Vote Montclair — the group that successfully petitioned for last year’s referendum on Montclair’s school district type, which in turn made way for Montclair’s first-ever school board election this month — are distancing themselves from the group after its founder authored a piece criticizing “education unions and union-dominated political machines” for promoting seniority and protecting underperforming teachers in the “twilight of their careers.”
Among those leaving Vote Montclair are the two new Board of Education members the group endorsed and helped campaign in March 8’s special election. Their two seats were created when voters chose in November to convert Montclair from a Type I school district with a mayor-appointed board of seven members to a Type II district with an elected board of nine members.
“[Vote Montclair founder] Erik D’Amato does not speak for Phaedra Dunn, Melanie Deysher nor anyone else who was involved with the now defunct Vote Montclair,” Dunn and Deysher wrote in a shared statement. “Nor do his opinions or views reflect that of anyone that was affiliated with Vote Montclair.”
Also leaving the group is Sergio Gonzalez, a former Board of Education member and, until this week, Vote Montclair’s co-chair alongside D’Amato. After Mayor Sean Spiller passed him over for reappointment to the school board last year, Gonzalez had notably authored his own statement — published on Vote Montclair’s website — alleging the mayor had let the the New Jersey Education Association (of which Spiller was then vice president, and is now president) run school policy (Spiller, at the time, rejected that accusation as “false and puzzling”). Gonzalez had also represented Vote Montclair at a Montclair Local forum on November’s referendum question.
He confirmed to Montclair Local Tuesday he’d stepped down from his role with Vote Montclair because of D’Amato’s piece, published by NJ Education Report, an activist education site that has frequently been deeply critical of the statewide teachers union. Gonzalez declined further comment on his departure from Vote Montclair.
Kendra Johnson, a Montclair parent who’d been part of Vote Montclair’s candidate advisory committee, was leaving the group as well.
“I still fully support both of our new board members and look forward to their time serving,” she wrote in an email to Montclair Local, adding that she’d signed Dunn’s and Deysher’s petitions to become candidates. “I do not share the views outlined in Erik D’Amato’s opinion piece and based on this am no longer affiliated with Vote Montclair. I support our teachers and the public schools and have nothing but admiration for their dedication.”
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) — said by email she was stepping away because D’Amato’s “comments about the role of the union are antithetical to mine, and people who are equating those words with mine are entirely incorrect and making unsupported false accusations.”
“I fully support our teachers and appreciate all that they do for the children, especially my own,” she said.
D’Amato’s piece — titled “This is how Montclair mayor/NJ state teachers union President Sean Spiller was humiliated at the ballot box” — says this month’s election was “swept by two candidates supported by the group which had led the referendum that caused Spiller to lose his power to appoint the BOE.” He argues voters were eager for a change in part due to “self-defeating effects of education unions’ and union-dominated political machines’ subordination of many other goals to the primacy of tenure and seniority.”
“Often the frustration was in watching the advancement of energetic younger teachers slowed down, or their dismissal under ‘last in first out’ rules,” D’Amato wrote in the piece. “In some cases, truly toxic senior teachers were seen as untouchable, even when (sometime[s] much younger) principals tried to rein them in.”
His piece also referenced — though not by name — 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.
“In a public forum on the referendum I participated in at one of our local schools, the featured debater brought in to defend the status quo was a teacher who had been at the school since the mid-1970s, before many of the voters we were trying to convince were born,” D’Amato wrote. That forum had been organized by Councilman David Cummings, who’d opposed the referendum for an elected board.
And D’Amato wrote that 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” — a reference D’Amato confirmed was to Jennette 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). Williams received just under 6% of the vote in a field of nine candidates, putting her in seventh place.
Williams said she hadn’t seen the piece before it was brought to her attention by Montclair Local Wednesday. She questioned the assertion anyone was told to line up behind her, and said her campaign had nothing to do with unions. She also said that if D’Amato thinks she didn’t work hard in her multiple roles with the district, including as a grant writer and educator, “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.
“My feelings are hurt by that,” she said. “They truly are hurt by that.”
The piece was published Monday, with a note describing D’Amato 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 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.”
But he said the “real story” was why his argument would “cause any ruckus” in the first place.
“Vote Montclair could fold up shop tomorrow with a good record of making positive, lasting change,” D’Amato said. “Though what this little brouhaha instead says to me is that there is still a strong need to ask tough questions about how things are done in the township, even if it makes people uncomfortable.”
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 the two candidates supporting 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.
The co-chairs rejected criticisms from some community members that made Vote Montclair a political machine, saying “machines are run by people who are in the business of government and elections, rather than volunteers motivated only by a desire to elect people they agree with, and trust.”
The Vote Montclair statement 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.”
Cary Chevat — who’s been involved in Montclair and regional political efforts for decades, as a cofounder of lobbying group BlueWaveNJ, and currently as the corresponding secretary for Montclair Democrats as well as of the Montclair branch of the NAACP — said he was stunned by D’Amato’s piece. Chevat stressed both that he’d supported Vote Montclair’s signature issue — the push for an elected school board — and that he wasn’t speaking for any of the groups he was affiliated with.
“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.”