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A watchdog group is accusing Mayor Sean Spiller, who is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, of siding with the union not his town in the reopening of schools.

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A watchdog group critical of the New Jersey Education Association has once again taken aim at Montclair’s Mayor Sean Spiller — saying his position as vice president of the powerful union is a conflict as the township’s schools and teachers remain locked in a dispute over returning to classrooms.

The Sunlight Policy Center, which last year took issue with Spiller’s NJEA role in a seven-page report during his campaign for mayor, issued a new three-page statement this week accusing Spiller of “siding with his union, not his town.”

“The real issue here is the mayor of Montclair’s actual conflict of interest. He is the No. 2 ranking officer in the NJEA and has a fiduciary duty to represent the members of the NJEA. In this dispute, he has publicly taken the NJEA’s position. He has a lot to answer for,” said Mike Lilley, the Sunlight Policy Center’s founder and author of the paper. “Mayor Spiller sides with his union on reopening of Montclair Schools.”

Lilley provided a copy of the paper to Montclair Local prior to the center’s publication. Montclair Local sent a copy to Spiller to provide him an opportunity to respond.

Spiller has maintained to both Montclair Local and in his video address to residents this week that as mayor it is not his role to dictate policy for either Montclair’s school district or the Montclair Education Association, and that it will be up to those parties to come to an agreement.

But in response to the Sunlight statement, the mayor referred to the group as “a neo-conservative, right-wing organization dedicated to attacking public education.” 

“I’m not in the habit of responding to Mike Lilley’s right-wing vitriol, and this latest diatribe is no exception,” Spiller said. Lilley rejects the categorization of his group as right-wing or neoconservative. 

Teachers did not show up Jan. 25 for what was expected to be the first day back since March of last year for in-person learning at the district’s elementary schools, or for a planned professional service day Jan. 19 — with the MEA saying it’s not yet safe to do so. In the time since, spokespeople for the MEA and the NJEA have both spoken for the local union, providing press releases and comment to Montclair Local and other media.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a statement Tuesday morning the district had “no other option but to instruct our legal counsel to file a lawsuit against the MEA for a physical return to school,” but talks with a mediator would continue.

Allegations of conflict

Lilley says in the Sunlight statement: “Despite Superintendent Jonathan Ponds’ decision to reopen schools, Montclair’s public schools remain closed because the MEA is refusing to return until its demands are met. Parent protests and petitions calling for reopening have been negated. Aided by the NJEA, the MEA is effectively vetoing the decision of the superintendent. Meanwhile, away from Montclair, some 500 New Jersey school districts are offering some form of in-person instruction, the report states. 

“Exactly when Montclair needs an un-conflicted mayor to lead them out of the impasse, they get the vice president of the NJEA, the second-highest officer in an organization that has actively inserted itself into the Montclair dispute.” 

The Sunlight Policy Center’s new statement, criticizing Sean Spiller’s dual roles as Montclair Mayor and NJEA Vice resident

Lilley points to the NJEA’s aid in distributing MEA’s own statement that it was not safe to return to school, and an NJEA letter-writing campaign calling for schools to remain closed until the entire teaching staff has been vaccinated (the campaign, which is no longer live on the site ActionNetwork.org, had gathered more than 1,000 participants).

Montclair Local asked Spiller to what extent, if any, he has taken part as an NJEA official in discussions with the MEA, the Montclair Board of Education, other Montclair school officials or the mediator facilitating discussions among the parties. Montclair Local also asked if he had created firewalls between himself and the MEA — such as not attending meetings or removing himself from email exchanges on the issue.

Spiller did not directly answer the questions, but said: “I have encouraged all parties to come together to see if they feel safe conditions have been met at this time. As those charged with making sound educational decisions for our kids, I would be supportive of their collective conclusions.”

In a recent interview with WPIX, Spiller said he isn’t among the negotiators.

“You’ve got the administrators from the school district, you’ve got the educators in a room having that conversation,” he said in the TV interview. “That’s tight to make sure they can figure things out.”

The NJEA has stated that vaccines are the only way to guarantee safety — a sentiment Spiller echoed in an interview with the New York Times. In response to a question asking if he is sympathetic to the teachers’ concern for school safety, Spiller said: “Anything they can do together to keep Montclair’s students and educators healthy and learning during this really challenging time benefits every Montclair resident.”

In public statements, he has stressed empathy for the school district’s leadership. 

“I want to recognize the extremely difficult situation that our new superintendent stepped into, starting in a new district as we entered into a pandemic, the likes of which none of us has ever experienced,” Spiller told Montclair Local in an email Jan. 21.

“Our educators, students and parents also deserve high praise for going above and beyond to continue the work of teaching and learning. It is from that starting point that we need all parties working together.”

Sunlight, Spiller have history

The Sunlight Policy Center, on its website, describes its mission as “Informing 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.”

It says its “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, Lilley, is an outspoken opponent of the NJEA and has spent years researching and creating reports on the association’s influence in local politics. Most of the center’s published materials focus on the NJEA. 

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 on teacher tenures, and on charters/school choice — and supportive of the controversial PARCC standardized tests. He was also an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that researches government, politics, economics and social welfare issues.

According to a report the Sunlight center published in 2020, while Spiller was still a township councilman, 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, right before the municipal election. At the time, Lilley, along with some Montclair residents, alleged Spiller’s position as vice president of the NJEA would present a conflict of interest if he were elected mayor.

Under Montclair’s form of government, the mayor appoints Board of Education members and typically sits on the Board of School Estimate, a separate body from the Board of Education that determines the tax levy to fund the district budget  — though the Township Council late last year approved having Deputy Mayor William Hurlock take that seat instead. Only 3 percent of New Jersey’s towns have mayoral appointments of their Board of Education members.

After the report in April was released, Spiller told Montclair Local that the “group’s express purpose 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 issues such as PARCC or school choice, or with Better Education for New Jersey Kids.

“Mayor Spiller is once again attacking Sunlight with falsehoods in an effort to deflect questions about his ongoing and legally recognized conflict of interest,” Lilley said. “The facts are the facts. Mayor Spiller needs to answer why he is openly siding with his union and against the superintendent in the dispute over reopening Montclair schools.”

Spiller has served as vice president of the NJEA since Sept. 1, 2017, and previously served as the union’s secretary since 2013. After being elected as a councilman in 2012, Spiller was appointed as one of the two council members to sit on the Board of School Estimate.

In 2015, a group calling itself Montclair Kids First successfully sued to have Spiller removed from the Board of School Estimate, alleging his role with the NJEA was a conflict. Montclair Kids First’s members included Matthew Frankel, now a member of Montclair Local’s governing board.

In his replies to Montclair Local this week, Spiller told the paper: “What may be worthy of investigative journalism is who exactly funds this shadowy organization, why are they solely fixated on Montclair, and is anyone on the board of [Montclair] Local affiliated with this group?”   

Frankel has told Montclair Local that while he’s worked with Sunlight and Lilley in the past, he had no role in the group’s new statement. Under Montclair Local’s editorial independence policy, published at MontclairLocal.news, board members and other donors have no right of review over editorial content. Frankel had no role in the reporting of this story.

NJEA has been funding part of Spiller’s campaigns, according to Election Law Enforcement Commission campaign reporting. According to the reports, the Spiller team’s top contributor was NJEA PAC, giving 81 percent of the total raised, at $41,000. Spiller by himself received $7,900 from the NJEA PAC. Marie Blistan, president of the NJEA, gave $2,600 and Robert Blistan gave $2,500. Another $8,000 was donated by a union based in Wayne, where Spiller has worked as a science teacher.