Mayor Sean Spiller says he expects his new appointments to the Board of Education to act independently of him.
He says he doesn’t know where they stand on the issue of whether the board should be appointed or elected. And he says he wasn’t privy to conversations with community members that they’ve had coming into their new roles.
That puts the mayor’s characterization of the board, and its relationship to Spiller, in sharp contrast with that of departing member Sergio Gonzalez, whom the mayor declined to appoint to a new term when announcing three members who’ll join the body in May.
Gonzalez — in a five-page prepared statement, most of which he read at Monday night’s school board meeting before being stopped by board President Latifah Jannah — accused Spiller of letting the Montclair Education Association “effectively appoint” the school board and dictate policy for the public school district, at students’ expense. He said the MEA’s leadership had “worked tirelessly to usurp the BOE’s legal status as the decisive policy-setting power in the district,” and alleged Spiller is trying to push Jonathan Ponds — Montclair’s latest in a rapid succession of superintendents over recent years — out of his job.
Gonzalez had been appointed in 2019 by then-Mayor Robert Jackson to finish out the remainder of Laura Hertzog’s three-year term, after she resigned, citing what she described as a toxic culture on the school board. In an email Tuesday, she said she’d never spoken to Gonzalez, but his statement was “completely consistent with my experience and that of others on the board.”
“I want to first start by thanking Mr. Gonzalez for his service on the Board of Education,” Spiller said in an email to Montclair Local Tuesday afternoon. “I am, however, disappointed to see that he is making several false and puzzling assertions regarding the appointment of new members to the Board of Education.”
Gonzalez, in his own statement, took note of a controversial juxtaposition of roles that has dogged Spiller throughout his Montclair political career, first on the Township Council, and since last year, as mayor.
Spiller is also an officer in the powerful New Jersey Education Association — its current vice president and soon to be its president. But as mayor, he also has the rare authority to select school board members — a function of the mayor’s office in just 14 New Jersey communities. In 2015, he’d been barred by a judge from serving on Montclair’s Board of School Estimate, a separate body that approves the school board’s budget and sets the tax levy, after being sued by an organization called Montclair Kids First that alleged a conflict of interest.
As Gonzalez noted, that means board members appointed by the head of the state teachers union will negotiate staffing and contracts with the local Montclair Education Association. “And it doesn’t matter that the town voted for this conflict,” Gonzalez said, likening the Montclair vote to the national election of former President Donald Trump, despite Trump’s vast business ownerships and entanglements.
But Gonzalez went further — alleging Spiller had at least one outgoing board member interviewed by the MEA’s president. He didn’t say who, but Gonzalez is one of just three leaving, to be replaced by appointees Crystal Hopkins, Eric Scherzer and Kathryn Weller-Demming. Board member Jessica de Koninck had already announced her departure after the current term, and told Montclair Local Tuesday she’d submitted a letter of resignation “some time ago.” Eve Robinson, also leaving the board after the current term, didn’t address Gonzalez’s assertion at Monday night’s meeting, and said by email she wouldn’t reply to another board member’s comments; she also said she couldn’t talk further until later this week.
‘Good practice, and encouraging’
Spiller told Montclair Local by email he knows prospective board members reached out to stakeholders — as he’d expect them to. He said those included parents, current and former board members, Township Council members, school administrators and various educators. The latter would generally be MEA members.
But “no one is required to have such conversations,” the mayor said.
“However, speaking with as many stakeholders as possible for a position you are interested in is good practice and encouraging when it occurs,” Spiller said.
Scherzer said he, personally, did exactly that. The incoming board member said he spoke to several people involved in the township and its schools. But he said that wasn’t done at the mayor’s direction — it was for his own sake, exploring the possibility of joining the board.
Scherzer said if the MEA was a part of his vetting process, he wasn’t aware of it. And he said he hopes his professional work and associations in the township — for instance, in volunteer work with the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, and with the public school system itself — would demonstrate “my ability and neutrality, and my ability to be an effective school board member.”
He pointed to his own past role, in management, negotiating across the table from a union supporting employees of the Committee of Interns and Residents, itself a local of the Service Employees International Union that represents physicians and fellows.
And he said that would be useful in negotiating the difficulties Montclair’s district finds itself in. Students only recently returned to school buildings in the coronavirus pandemic, on a hybrid learning schedule, after the district and MEA settled a lawsuit over members’ refusal to come to district buildings in January (it’s a dispute Gonzalez alleges the MEA negotiated in bad faith; he also says he threatened to resign if Ponds wasn’t given the authority to sue). The school system pledged to provide more information about coronavirus safety practices and facilities work as part of the settlement.
“I think one of the main things I bring to the table is my ability to manage and bring together, in face of those challenges,” Scherzer said.
‘Many forms of dysfunction’
Gonzalez made other assertions Spiller disputed. He said he was passed over for his support of the sort of elected board most New Jersey communities have. Even before he’d finished reading most of his statement Monday night, Vote Montclair, a group petitioning for an elected board, had posted it online and shared it to local Facebook groups.
Gonzalez also said he “knew my reappointment was not certain given how outspoken I had been about getting the children back in the buildings, but a part of me believed the mayor would live up to his campaign promise of an independent board.”
He said the MEA had effectively usurped control over the district’s policy-making — putting its advocacy of teachers over the needs of students.
“Among the many other forms of dysfunction I discovered was the large number of teachers with light class loads, some teaching as few as two periods out of the standard five,” he said.
The departing board member also said the new appointments “starkly failed to provide representation” to Montclair’s growing Latino and Asian American populations.
Spiller said he didn’t know Gonzalez was a proponent of an elected board, “but in any event, such a position would not have any impact whatsoever on my decision.”
“I would also recommend asking any of the sitting Board of Education members if they are being controlled or usurped in some way by outside forces,” the mayor said in his email to Montclair Local.
He said asserting board members are being controlled by other forces “is not only false, but also insulting to the intelligence of those who have served.”
The mayor in his statement said Gonzalez was “empowered for three years to help shape school policy” (though Gonzalez was only on the board for 20 months). Spiller said he wasn’t aware “any instance where Mr. Gonzalez raised his concerns at a Board of Education meeting or was prevented from providing leadership on these issues.”
“If Mr. Gonzalez feels that the Board of Education — to which I had made only one previous appointment — during his tenure was ineffective, then it should be self-evident why it is ultimately a good thing to bring in new perspectives,” the mayor said.
The mayor made that first appointment, of board member Allison Silverstein, last year. Once his new appointees are in place, the majority of board members will be individuals Spiller selected.
MEA spokesperson Candice Pastor said the union would “not contribute to the toxic climate rumors and inappropriate accusations are creating.
“They only serve as an intentional distraction from the necessary work which needs to be done to restore our community,” she said.
Board Vice President Priscilla Church, after hearing Gonzalez’s comments Monday night, said she was “disappointed at what appears to be the new criteria for vetting a board member.”
De Koninck noted that the three incoming board members were in the audience Monday night.
“This is as good as any an opportunity to see how interesting meetings are,” she said.
Hopkins is the upper school manager of operations at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and she has two children enrolled in the Montclair schools. She is also a 2006 Montclair High School graduate, where she participated in the Civics and Government Institute, Peer Leadership, and Student Government. She holds degrees in business administration and management from Ashford University and pursued a degree in mass communications and media studies at Virginia State University.
“Montclair Public schools are a treasure,” Hopkins said in a press release from the mayor’s office announcing the appointments. “I look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure every Montclair student has access to the abundance of opportunities and formative experiences that I enjoyed in our district.”
She told Montclair Local in an email she hopes to serve what she called the “other” parents — “the single parents, the working families , the minority families all of whom are often talked about but not often actually considered in decision making.”
“I’m also looking forward to working to rebuild a successful relationship between the [Board of Education] and the teachers so that we work together for the success of our students,” she wrote. “Montclair has the ability to be outstanding I believe that all of the members of the BOE will work tirelessly as some of them have already done in the past to continue to move the district forward.”
Weller-Demming serves on the board of trustees for the Montclair Child Development Center. She also served on the Township Council as councilor at large from 2008 to 2012, including a term as deputy mayor from 2011 to 2012. She studied at Hampshire College and at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
“I am humbled by this opportunity to serve students, families, and our entire school community,” Weller-Demming said in the release. “In these incredibly challenging times, there are great opportunities to innovate and strive for further excellence in our Montclair Public Schools. As a student, I received a world-class education in Montclair, and I am deeply grateful to the many individuals who together made my experiences possible.”
She also told Montclair Local in an email she hopes “to bring my deep love for our Montclair Public Schools to engage with all of our stakeholder communities, and I hope to focus on equity and inclusion, further building on the diversity that has long been our strength and hallmark.”
Scherzer is a senior adviser for Vot-ER, a health care-based voter registration organization. Prior to that, he worked in leadership positions with Service Employees International Union’s Committee of Interns and Residents, and with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union. He holds degrees in occupational safety and health from Hunter College, and history and political science from Brown University.
“I intend to work with the other board members, the superintendent, teachers and staff, parents, students, and all other parts of our community to address persistent racial disparities so that our schools can live up to their promise of providing a world-class education to all,” he said.
The Board of Education’s reorganization meeting, when new members will take their seats, will be held on May 17.
Editor’s note: One of Montclair Kids First’s members, Matthew Frankel, later joined the Montclair Local governing board. Under the news organization’s editorial independence policy, the board has no role in selecting or directing news coverage.