BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A watchdog group has issued a seven-page report with claims that mayoral candidate Sean Spiller’s position as a high-ranking officer at the New Jersey Education Association combined with his influence over the school district if he were to become Montclair’s next mayor would be a conflict of interest.
In response Spiller accused the group of “trying to buy the local election in Montclair.”
“Because I stand for everything their right-wing group is against, they are spending big bucks against our campaign,” he said.
The generator of the report, the Sunlight Policy Center (SPCNJ), contends its mission is to inform “New Jersey citizens of the facts behind our state’s dysfunctional status quo and advocating for policy solutions that put New Jersey back on the path to future prosperity. SPCNJ’s main focus is New Jersey’s special-interest-dominated political system and the malign status quo created and supported by it.”
The group’s founder, Mike Lilley, an outspoken opponent of NJEA, has spent years researching and creating reports on the association’s influence in local politics.
Until 2015, Lilley was the executive director of Better Education for New Jersey Kids, a nonprofit focused on education issues in New Jersey — including the TEACHNJ reform law and charters/school choice — and supportive of PARCC. He was also an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank that researches government, politics, economics, and social welfare issues.
According to a report SPCNJ published in 2017, the NJEA spent more than $33 million supporting dozens of nonprofits and political action committees. The report “Councilman Spiller, Mayor Spiller, Governor Spiller?” was published April 20. Lilley, along with some Montclair residents, are questioning whether Spiller’s position as vice president of the NJEA, the state teacher’s union, would present a conflict of interest if he is elected mayor.
Spiller contends the center is a “right-wing, neoconservative group closely related to the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (affiliated with figures such as Dick Cheney and John Bolton). The express purpose of the Sunlight Policy Center is to push a pro-charter school, pro-common core, pro-corporatization of our educational system agenda.”
Lilley said his work over the past five years has had nothing to do with education reform or with Better Education for New Jersey Kids.
“It has focused on N.J.’s special-interest-dominated political system,” Lilley said. “You will find nothing having to do with charters or PARCC in the AEI work or with SPCNJ. SPCNJ has never expressed an opinion about any of that.”
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. Only 3 percent of New Jersey’s towns have mayoral appointments of their BOE members.
Most recently, Lilley has been blogging about Spiller. The center’s Facebook page has been filled with posts alleging Spiller’s conflict of interest if he were to serve as both vice president of the NJEA and mayor of Montclair.
“New Jersey’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), is by far the biggest political spender and most powerful special interest in the state, and therefore is a frequent subject of SPCNJ’s research. It is Sean Spiller’s position as vice president of the NJEA that would create a clear conflict of interest for a Mayor Spiller, a conflict of interest that was determined to be real and disqualifying for Councilman Spiller by a New Jersey Superior Court,” Lilley said, referencing a 2015 suit that resulted in Spiller’s being removed from Board of School Estimate (BoSE).
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.
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.”
As for the appointment of BOE members, Spiller 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 has served as vice president of the NJEA since Sept. 1, 2017, and previously served as secretary since 2013. After being elected as a councilman in 2012, Spiller was subsequently appointed as one of the two council members to sit on the BoSE.
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 BoSE determines the tax levy to fund the budget.
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.
In 2016, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moore decided 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.
“If elected mayor of Montclair, Spiller would have an even greater conflict of interest than as a councilman: He would appoint the entire school board, chair the BoSE, and select two council members to serve on the BoSE,” Lilley said.
The Sunlight Center also noted that NJEA trains and supports its own members to run for public office. NJEA has been funding part of Spiller’s campaigns. According to campaign contribution reports, Spiller has received $7,900 from NJEA PAC and a combined $5,500 from the president of NJEA and her husband. Another $8,000 was donated by a union based in Wayne, where he works as a science teacher.
According to its website, SPCNJ does not endorse or oppose either directly or indirectly any candidate for public office, contribute to political campaigns, engage in political fund-raising, solicit contributions to any candidate’s campaign for office or engage in any activity that may favor or oppose a specific candidate for office.
When asked if he thought the newsletters and blogs about Spiller’s alleged conflict of interest could be considered campaigning against a candidate, Lilley said the center is a not-for-profit research organization providing facts to better inform New Jersey residents.
“Because NJEA VP Spiller happens to be running for mayor of Montclair — which is what creates the conflicts in the first place — we aim to try to inform Montclair citizens of the facts we have unearthed. Nothing more, nothing less. We defy anyone to show where what we have presented is not factual,” Lilley told Montclair Local.
“But beyond that, it’s up to the citizens of Montclair to choose whom they want as mayor — just as it’s up to the citizens of N.J. to decide whom they want as governor. SPCNJ has no opinion on whether Spiller or (Renee) Baskerville is a better candidate. If the voters choose either of them, then that’s their choice.”