By ESTEP NAGY
For Montclair Local
A petition is circulating that would ask Montclair to vote on this question: Should our town elect its school board members?
Under current rules, the mayor appoints the seven members of the Montclair Board of Education, and it’s important to underline that Mayor Sean Spiller serves as vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state teachers union that oversees the local union (the Montclair Education Association) representing our district teachers.
Against that backdrop, here are six reasons why I say Montclair should elect our members of the board of education, rather than the mayor appointing them:
- Ninety-eight percent of New Jersey school districts have an elected school board: Exactly 11 of the 584 school districts in New Jersey have appointed school boards. Montclair is, by far, the exception. Since 2004, all the school boards in New Jersey that switched systems have gone from appointed to elected; zero have gone the other way. No system is perfect, but districts all over the state are sticking with elected school boards once they switch, presumably because democracy is, well, good.
- Families are powerless right now: The teachers have a union. So too, apparently, does the mayor. The district has the state Department of Education and the governor above them, as well as a legal team. But who speaks for us, the families whose children are suffering? I’ve watched the school board meetings, and they show no urgency about the kids. Meanwhile, 92% of the Montclair school system budget comes from property taxes — from citizens, that is, who currently elect one person with input into board decisions (the mayor), when they could be electing seven more. Seven! As things stand, people write furious notes to the school board and the superintendent, and nothing changes. Parents cry at board meetings. Nothing changes. Equity is shredded by remote learning. Nothing changes. Beloved principals resign in protest. Nothing changes. Does that sound like fair and effective representation?
- Elections provide accountability: We are a democracy. In democracies, we vote on important things, and at a minimum, this question of board elections should be on the ballot. The current school board has failed in two major ways, and we as a town must either ratify that failure or try for something better. Over the short term, this board has failed to adequately oversee Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, whose leadership has ranged from uneven to catastrophic. Longer-term, COVID has exposed this board’s years-long record of bad decisions. It’s not Dr. Ponds’ fault, for example, that the district’s ventilation systems — now a major issue with the teachers union — are in some cases 70 years old (per the district ventilation report last fall). That is the appointed school board’s fault, full stop.
- The teachers union should not appoint the school board: Whatever your views on reopening the schools or anything else, surely it’s an easy call that a senior executive of the teachers union should not select the board members who a) hire and fire the superintendent; and b) negotiate the teachers’ contracts. But that’s exactly what will happen next time there’s a board opening, and I don’t know what to call that other than a pretty shocking conflict of interest.
- Diversity, equity and inclusion may well get better: One of the biggest recent drivers of equity problems in Montclair has been the appointed board’s inability to get kids safely back in school, which most other area districts as well as private schools have successfully done. The tech disparities here are just one issue we know about for sure, while evidence is growing, both nationwide and globally, that remote learning is driving huge increases in education inequality. So it’s 100% imaginable that improving board performance — while maintaining a diverse board — will, on balance, materially improve the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion position.
- We just can’t go on like this: Over the last year, the off-the-charts tension — including, now, litigation — between the teachers union and the district and parents, has been incredibly painful. Our school battles are now national news and not in the good way, an easy shorthand for what to avoid. Healing our divisions has to be a top priority post-COVID, and it stands to reason that only the transparency of free and fair elections can restore some measure of harmony in Montclair.
Estep Nagy is a novelist and screenwriter who has two children in the Montclair elementary schools. He was recently quoted in a Montclair Local article about a petition to ask voters whether Montclair should have an elected school board. His submission follows a January Town Square by the Montclair League of Women Voters, presenting 12 arguments to keep the appointed board.
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