By ERIN ROLL
A referendum on switching Montclair’s Board of Education from an appointed body to an elected one is expected to get another push forward in the next month.
On Jan. 12, parent Erik D’Amato and his organization, Vote Montclair, announced that a petition for a referendum would be launched within the next 30 days. Vote Montclair’s campaign, which began its push in the summer, has also engaged legal counsel.
A survey that the group conducted this summer found that of 333 respondents, 77 percent were in favor of an elected BOE.
Montclair is a Type II district, one of only 11 such districts in New Jersey, in which the BOE is appointed by the mayor rather than being elected by the public. The majority of school districts are Type I, in which board members are elected.
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In Montclair’s particular case, Mayor Sean Spiller is also vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the union that represents teachers throughout the state. The Sunlight Policy Center in a report last spring, alleged that was a conflict of interest — an assertion then-candidate Spiller said was the product of a right-wing group “trying to buy the local election in Montclair.” Spiller also said in the spring he would “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.” A 2015 suit resulted in then-Councilman Spiller being removed from Board of School Estimate, and while the mayor normally sits on that board, in December the Township Council approved the appointment of Deputy Mayor William Hurlock to that board in the mayor’s place.
Since 1963 there have been five failed attempts to move Montclair to an elected BOE, the most recent in 2009. At that time, Montclair was one of 46 Type II districts, but many of them switched to elected BOEs after the legislature passed a law allowing schools to move their elections from April to November.
If a school district wishes to switch from an elected to an appointed BOE, or vice-versa, the district would have to pass a resolution to put the question to voters, or a petition supported by 15 percent of the district’s voters would have to be submitted to get the question on the ballot.
The proposed change would then have to be approved by voters in a special election.
Vote Montclair’s referendum campaign paused in late summer due to the anticipated return to school, which was later pushed back, and the events leading up to the 2020 election, D’Amato said.
The group’s other goal is to encourage more people to take part in local elections, since Montclair’s elections tend to see rather low voter turnout.
Vote Montclair is holding weekly Zoom meetings as well during the month of January to discuss the issue.
D’Amato estimated that the referendum backers would need to raise $5,000 in legal fees.
The League of Women Voters is in favor of an appointed BOE rather than an elected one. In a position statement on the matter, the League said its reasons for opposing an elected BOE include the expense of holding an election and the risk that candidates backed by special interests whose goals are contrary to the school district’s would run for the board and be elected.
But Carmel Loughman, the League’s communications officer, said that if there is a referendum in 2021, the League would revisit its position.
“The League’s mission is to foster civic engagement, education, thoughtful discussion and voting. We believe in public discussion of both sides of issues. Having this issue as a referendum question on the ballot would promote public discussion of pros and cons of the issue.
“Thus the League would support having a referendum put to the voters on the ballot on whether the BOE should be elected or appointed. Hopefully this would trigger a robust discussion among citizens on the merits of the position.”