By ERIN ROLL
Montclair is one of 11 school districts in New Jersey in which the board of education is appointed by the mayor, rather than elected. And a debate is ensuing among some Montclair residents over whether Montclair should stick with an appointed board, or switch to an elected board.
The question arose in March amid discussions of the 2019-2020 school budget which reflected a $2.2 budget hole, and facilities in desperate need of upgrades including the staircases at Montclair High School.
Before 2012, all school board elections were held in April. In 2012, New Jersey gave Type II school districts — ones that elect their board — the option to move their elections to November. Most Type II districts opted to do so. The April elections allowed voters to vote on the school budgets, but with the move to November, voters no longer had a say on the budget.
Montclair is what is known as a Type I school district, in which school board members are appointed by the town’s governing body.
As of 2018, Montclair was one of only 11 Type I school districts in New Jersey. The other 10 are Ventnor, Port Republic, Rockleigh, Pine Valley, East Orange, East Newark, Union City, Harrison, Trenton and Summit.
Newark and Paterson, two cities that had been under state control until 2018, held referendums and moved to elected school boards.
Supporters of an appointed board have stated appointments ensure that special interest parties are kept from serving on the board of education. Supporters of an elected board have stated those boards are directly accountable to the public.
School districts can switch from appointed to elected boards and vice versa, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. But the process would involve several steps including referendum.
The governing body in a Type I district, or the board of education in a Type II district, would have to pass a resolution in support of putting the question to voters. Alternatively, a petition with the support of 15 percent of the district’s voters would have to be submitted. From there, the resolution would have to go to the municipal clerk, for the process of putting it onto the ballot.
If an appointed district district becomes an elected district, and the BOE has fewer than nine members, additional members would have to be added to bring it up to nine.
Cassie Hultin is in favor of Montclair having an elected school board, and of moving Montclair’s municipal elections to the fall, and had looked into an ad hoc committee of parents and residents to explore the idea. She met with other parents on Friday to discuss possible next steps, but she said that after the meeting, the group decided not to pursue the issue for the time being.
“I think that appointed school boards work, and I think elected school boards work,” said BOE President Laura Hertzog. She sees pros and cons with both types of school boards.
“Right now, people feel comfortable exercising that power through the mayor,” she said.
In 2009, Montclair had a debate over whether to continue with an appointed board or switch to an elected board. The question was put to a vote in October of that year. Voters opted to continue with an appointed board.
It was the fifth time in 46 years that the idea of an elected board had been put to voters in Montclair, and then rejected.
Jerry Fried was Montclair’s mayor at the time. He campaigned against the referendum to switch to an elected board.
“As a former mayor who had a citizen advisory group help me solicit and evaluate BOE appointments and advocated for keeping our appointed board, I still believe that such boards have the potential to be the most effective and responsive stewards of almost 60 percent of our local taxes,” Fried said. “As was highlighted by the 2012 MHS mayoral debate, choosing a mayor in Montclair is first and foremost about choosing the person who will best determine the governance of our schools and every voter should make this their number one priority.”
However, Fried said he was in favor of moving elections to the fall, due to municipal elections in the spring having a low voter turnout.
One concern has been Montclair’s municipal elections, which are held in May. The municipal elections tend to see a much lower turnout than the general elections in November. Some proponents of an elected board favor it on the condition that Montclair’s local elections are held in the fall.
In 2009, there were 20 districts, including Montclair, with appointed boards of education.
A 2010 report by the National School Boards Association conducted a poll of school board members at the time. Of the respondents, 94.5 percent said they were elected to their local school board, and only 5.5 percent said they had been appointed.
In New York, five of the 13 members of the Panel for Educational Policy are appointed by the five borough presidents. The remaining eight are appointed by the mayor. Other cities, like Boston and Chicago, also have appointed school boards. In Boston, however, a citizens’ nominating committee recommends school board candidates, and the mayor picks from those candidates.
But other large cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, have boards that are elected by the general public.