BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Under Montclair’s form of government, the mayor appoints the Board of Education members and sits on the Board of School Estimate, which reviews and approves the public schools budget each year.
With the township set to elect a new mayor in a month’s time, some residents are questioning whether candidate Sean Spiller’s position as vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state teacher’s union, would present a conflict of interest if he is elected mayor.
Spiller, who is currently the Third Ward representative on the township council, is vying for the mayoralty against Renee Baskerville, currently the Fourth Ward representative, in the May 12 vote-by-mail election.
In the lead-up to an April 22 candidates forum to be held by teleconferencing, Montclair Local asked readers for suggestions on questions they’d like to have answered by the candidates; eight readers asked about Spiller and his role with the NJEA.
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According to the state statute regulating school district operations of a Type 1 school district, Montclair’s classification, “The mayor of the municipality comprising the school district shall be the presiding officer of the Board of School Estimate. There shall be in each Type I district a Board of School Estimate, which shall consist of two members of the Board of Education appointed by it, two members of the governing body of the municipality appointed by it, and the mayor or other chief executive officer of the municipality, or if there be no chief executive officer then an additional member appointed by the governing body.”
Spiller has served as vice president of the NJEA since Sept. 1, 2017, and previously served as secretary since 2013. He has been a member of the township council since 2012.
According to the NJEA, its mission is to advance and protect the rights, benefits, and interests of union members, and promote a quality system of public education for all students.
When asked how he would handle the potential conflict arising from sitting on the Board of School Estimate, Spiller said he would appoint a designee to serve in his place as he understands the law allows.
As for the appointment of BOE members he said: “As mayor, I will fulfill 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 told Montclair Local that he believes that “public education is one of the most important services that local government provides.
“As a parent, an educator and someone who believes in the value of public education, I have a deep interest in making sure our students get what they need,” he said. “As a Montclair homeowner and taxpayer, I have a vested interest in keeping costs as reasonable as possible.”
One of the residents raising the point about a possible conflict of interest is Clifford Kulwin, who said he recently wrote to Spiller requesting clarification but has not received a response.
“I believe the statute insists that the mayor chair the BoSE,” Kulwin said. “If it makes no provisions for an alternate chair, that is a problem, though even if it does make such a provision, there is the problem of appearance … whoever chairs the BoSE will be someone [he] chooses. In either case, it will be hard to ensure a feeling of confidence that whoever sits in that chair will be guided solely by the township’s best interests.”
According to his profile on the NJEA website, Spiller’s past roles in the group have included serving as chair of the Congressional Contact Committee, as a member of the Urban Education Committee and as an ethnic-minority-at-large representative to the Delegate Assembly. He was also a member of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA). He has served as an executive board member of the Passaic County Education Association (2005-2013), and as president (2007-2013) and negotiations team member of the Wayne Education Association.
This isn’t the first time that Spiller’s position with NJEA and his work as an elected official have been questioned. After being elected as a councilman in 2012, Spiller was subsequently appointed as one of the two council members to sit on the Board of School Estimate.
In 2015, Montclair Kids First, composed of township residents and led by Jonathan Bonesteel, Matthew Frankel, and Sam Cole, successfully filed suit seeking to have him removed from the BoSE, believing Spiller to have a conflict between his roles on the board and in the NJEA. (Editor’s disclosure: Matthew Frankel is a member of Montclair Local’s board of directors.)
Spiller’s lawyer argued then that he was not a member of the bargaining unit, and was not an employee of the Montclair school system.
Although his “affiliation with the NJEA is affiliated with the union, it is a separate organization,” he said at the time.
Under state law, the district’s Board of Education approves collective bargaining agreements with teachers, determines staffing, and makes spending policy decisions for Montclair schools. The town’s Board of School Estimate determines the tax levy to fund the budget.
In 2016, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moore ruled that Spiller should be removed from the board, ruling that serving on both the NJEA and BoSE violated common-law conflict of interest and Montclair’s ethics code.
At the time, Spiller’s response to the judge’s order was: “From its outset, this litigation initiated by MKF has been straight out of the right-wing playbook used nationally to vilify teachers and attack public education.”
In a recent letter to the editor published by Montclair Local, Bonesteel said: “Baloney, it was not a personal attack but a legitimate concern, as the judge confirmed.”