BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
In a town where the mayor wields much influence over the school district, Montclair’s Parent Teacher Association Council decided to sponsor a mayoral candidates forum on educational issues, including the culture of the district, appointments to the Board of Education, and finances.
Ninety-seven percent of New Jersey school districts have Board of Education members chosen by a public vote. Bond issues for capital improvements are also voted on by the residents through referendum. With Montclair’s form of government, however, the mayor appoints the Board of Education members and sits on the Board of School Estimate, which reviews and approves the schools budget and funding for capital improvements each year.
Sean Spiller, who is currently the Third Ward representative on the township council, is vying for the mayoralty against Renée Baskerville, currently the Fourth Ward representative, in the May 12 vote-by-mail election. Both have backgrounds in education — Baskerville serving in the East Orange School District as a health provider and educator and as a former BOE member, and Spiller as a teacher and as the current vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state teacher’s union.
Montclair has had six superintendents – two full-time and four interim – since 2012. Infighting with Board of Education members has also been a problem, with five resigning over the last three years.
PTA Council President Deborah Villareal and John Fortt of CNBC moderated the April 27 forum held on Zoom.
When asked how they would appoint to the BOE and serve on the Board of School Estimate, Baskerville noted her previous experience serving on the BOE during a time of stability when the schools were rated “Blue Ribbon” and the district had a permanent superintendent. She pointed to recent divisive meetings between parents and board members and said it was time to discover what “was underneath all that.” With BOE appointments, she would consider a board with input from the public and council members. “We need to take the politics out of it,” she said. The board appointments should reflect the entire community, she said, but believes that the mayoral appointees should continue.
Spiller said that it’s time to stop discussing “what divides us, and instead what keeps us together.” The divisiveness at meetings he said has led the board meetings to be less productive than they should be and resulted in the leadership “getting off track.” He said he would appoint people that have a similar shared vision. He noted that the turnover in business administrators and superintendents was hard on the staff and what was needed now was consistency.
Spiller was asked if his position as vice president of the NJEA would present a conflict of interest if he is elected mayor. In 2016 after a group of parents sued to remove Spiller from the BoSE, a Superior Court Judge 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.
He said as a parent, an educator, a Montclair homeowner and taxpayer, he has a vested interest in public education and that his appointments would be based on values.
He said he would appoint someone, as allowed by law, to serve on the Board of School Estimate in his place.
On the achievement gap, or “opportunity gap” as Spiller called it, he said the first step was to acknowledge the problem. “Let’s call it what is — institutional racism — that sometimes holds back some students in favor of others,” he said. “Then let’s involve the students and the educators in the solution. We need to meet the needs of all the students.”
Baskerville said she is a proponent of the district’s Restorative Justice Program that helps “everyone to understand one another and communicate better.” Every teacher, staff member and BOE member should be required to take an “Undoing Racism” course, she said. Bringing back free, universal pre-K is necessary to closing the achievement gap, she said.
The district had experienced a strain on resources even before the pandemic and many buildings are in dire need of renovation and emergency repairs.
Baskerville said the district needs to come up with a minimum of a five-year plan, especially to address the aging infrastructure, and then carry it through with priorities set. She also suggested that high school students be given entrepreneurial opportunities through programs that would offer training for trades such as 3-D printing, car mechanics, electricians and appliance repair people that would be funded by the public who would pay for the students to offer services.
Spiller said it was up to the township to invest in the schools’ infrastructure. He said with the town’s now AAA bond rating due to the council paying down debt, they were in a better position to bond at a better interest rate for needed repairs.
As for Montclair’s surge in redevelopment, Spiller said that the Payments In Lieu of Taxes agreed upon by the developers and the council are at least the amount that would be brought in by taxes. Although PILOTs do not go toward schools as taxes would, Spiller said it’s the township, not the district, that pays the school debt.
Baskerville pointed to the $3.9 million that the PILOTs brought in this year alone. She said that by requiring mostly one and two bedrooms within the developments, the multi-family units were drawing very few children.
Watch the entire forum here: