by ERIK D’AMATO
special to Montclair Local
As of this week Montclair has a new mayor, a new superintendent of schools, and a new search for a high school principal. But unlike the overwhelming majority of school districts in New Jersey and across the country, it still has a Board of Education lacking the democratic legitimacy and accountability that comes from being directly elected by voters.
Sean Spiller’s victory in the May 12 election has again put a spotlight on the way the township selects the seven members of its BOE. As a high-ranking official of the state’s leading education union, Spiller was previously barred by court order from sitting as a councilman on the Board of School Estimate, a parallel budget-approving body. And it is almost certain that any BOE appointments he makes as mayor will be the subject of further costly lawsuits.
But the question of whether voters rather than mayors should choose who sets education policy in Montclair goes way beyond the issues of one individual. Regardless of what happens with Spiller’s appointments (and even if Spiller’s challenger, Dr. Renee Baskerville, were to prevail in her ongoing recount effort), the governance of Montclair’s schools will still be an outlier, as the small handful of municipalities with unelected Type I BOEs — now just 11 out of 565 — continues to shrink steadily.
To want an elected BOE is also not to question the commitment and wisdom of our current board. Indeed, the shameful disrespect commonly shown members at public board meetings is an advertisement for giving those who serve the legitimacy and natural authority that comes with having been democratically elected.
And it is not just voters who have increasingly decided that an elected BOE is a cornerstone of local democracy. Many mayors have as well. When Newark voted two years ago on the question, Mayor Ras Baraka vocally supported the change even though the power to appoint the board offered him what he called “enormous direct power” over education in Newark.
“I do not want that power,” Baraka said. “I want the people to have that power. Parents know what’s best for their children and their education. Residents have clear ideas, sometimes conflicting ideas, about what our schools should be like. I believe in democracy, the more, the better.”
Different towns can and should adopt different models of government. But the question remains: Why would Montclairions want less direct power over their children’s education than residents of 97 percent of New Jersey’s municipalities, from New Brunswick and Moonachie, where our new superintendent, Dr. Jonathan Ponds, most recently served, to our diverse sister commuter towns of Maplewood and South Orange?
Could the mistrust, intrigue and ugly scenes that have made Montclair BOE meetings infamous across the state be made any worse by giving BOE members the legitimacy of being elected by the people they serve?
Unfortunately, as in 2009 many will likely search for ulterior motives or interests behind a drive for an elected BOE, and conflate it with other long-fought battles over education policy and staffing.
But in reality, it isn’t about these other issues. Instead, if there is any other cause it can be lumped together with, it is ending Montclair’s sorry status as one of the similarly tiny handful of towns that holds municipal elections in May rather than November, which invariably dampens voter turnout. It’s about a township that claims to value participatory democracy actually living up to that claim.
To be sure, an elected BOE is no panacea for the inevitable problems and issues faced by school districts, and Montclair voters have in the past opted to retain the township’s Type I status, most recently in 2009. There are decent arguments to be made in favor of insulating BOE appointments from electoral politics, and no one should be shouted down or shamed for being partial to either the Type I or Type II approach.
But if there are good arguments for and against an elected BOE, it is hard to see the argument against once more putting the question to voters, even setting aside the issues presented by our new mayor.
As the number of unelected districts drops into the single digits, a looming crunch in township finances is likely to force the kind of hard choices that make democratic accountability and legitimacy especially crucial.
And while Montclairions are often accused of treating local government as a spectator sport, the big bump in turnout for May’s election shows that voters here are increasingly interested and engaged in township affairs, and ready to exercise more direct control over the township’s most important municipal function. If you are one of these voters, I encourage you to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and otherwise to not treat this issue as a spectator.
Participatory democracy may not always be a matter of the more the better. But when it comes to Montclair schools, it’s hard right now to make a case for less being more.
The author is a Hillside and Glenfield parent.