Element 5 Digital via Unsplash

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Mayor Sean Spiller said Thursday he trusts Montclair’s voters to decide if the school district should have an elected school board or its current appointed one — the same day the township received a petition that could prompt a ballot question on the matter

Vote Montclair Thursday presented the township clerk’s office with a petition seeking a referendum on what sort of board the district should have, with 2,004 signatures — 1,823 digital and 181 on paper. The petition required only 1,020 signatures, equaling 15% of the total votes cast in the last election. If the township clerk verifies enough signatures and certifies the petition, the question will be asked of voters at the next general election.

In a Facebook post, Spiller said he has the “utmost confidence in the judgement of the residents of Montclair and would be fully supportive of moving to an elected Board of Education.”

“Voters can and should be entrusted to decide for themselves what mechanism for naming members of the Board of Education will best serve students, residents and taxpayers,” Spiller wrote. “Even when there are differing opinions, I believe that everyone shares the ultimate goal of preserving our world class public schools.”

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Montclair is one of just 11 districts in New Jersey where board members are appointed by the mayor; the rest of the approximately 600 districts have elected boards. Critics have argued that presents a conflict of interest in Montclair, as Spiller is also an officer with the New Jersey Education Association — its current vice president and its incoming president.

Vote Montclair organizers: We have the signatures

If voters were to approve the ballot question, Montclair would also add two more members to its current seven-member board. It would do away with its Board of School Estimate, a separate body that reviews and votes on the district budget and sets the tax levy. 

Vote Montclair founder and campaign co-chair Erik D’Amato said he assumes there will be some duplicates amongst the signatures filed, despite his own efforts to catch them earlier. But he said he’s not worried about them — D’Amato said he is most concerned about possible challenges to the signatures, which must exactly match the information on file with the township. 

“We’re just going to have to wait and see,” D’Amato said. 

The first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state, also in Montclair and submitted by landlords seeking to force a rent control ordinance to a ballot vote, has faced a months-long court battle over the verification of signatures since they were first submitted in October 2020. The clerk disqualified several, but a judge ultimately ordered her to certify the petition; an appeals court will decide if the decision stands. If it does, the township council would either have to strike the rent control ordinance or put that matter before voters.

In an email to Montclair Local, Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Montclair Property Owners Association, asked: “Why can voters in Montclair be trusted to choose the mechanism for school board membership, but they cannot be trusted to decide if they want rent control?”

In a statement released by Vote Montclair after the mayor’s, D’Amato said it’s irrelevant if Spiller supports a “a legal change once it has already been made by public referendum.”

Instead, his statement called on Spiller and the township to guarantee “the type of voter suppression we like to think only takes place in other places in America is not about to take place here.” It said while the clerk can disqualify signatures for signatures that don’t match those on the voter rolls “these or other aggressive measures to deny certification of the petition it would represent a grave breach of trust.”

D’Amato, in the Vote Montclair statement said: “And as one lifelong resident told me last week, ‘I first registered to vote 40 years ago, and I have no idea what my signature looked like.’

It also said Spiller should “vow to help ensure that this initiative, and future township elections, are not subject to the same barrage of outside money that accompanied his campaigns for Township Council and mayor.” It cited Spiller’s incoming presidency with the NJEA, calling him ” by far the largest single source of political cash in the state.”

“He should not use it to influence elections in Montclair, full stop,” D’Amato wrote. “This means not only eschewing campaign contributions or independent expenditures, but the financing of legal challenges, such as against the current elected BOE initiative.”

Montclair Local has reached out to Spiller for further comment on Vote Montclair’s statement.

The League of Women Voters for the Montclair Area has previously stated its support of an appointed board, but Communications Director Carmel Loughman said the organization is supportive of the referendum, which she said will prompt conversation on both sides of the issue.  

“Hopefully this would trigger a robust discussion among citizens on the merits of the position,” Loughman said.

Loughman said the League members will vote on whether they want to revisit the issue and update their 2009 position at their May 26, 2021 annual meeting.

The League is also working with Councilman Peter Yacobellis on participation in an upcoming forum on the issue, said Loughman.

Typically, the mayor sits on the Board of School Estimate, but a judge ruled in 2015 then-Councilman Spiller’s NJEA role presented a conflict of interest that bars him from the board, after he was sued by a group calling itself Montclair Kids First. The group’s members included Matthew Frankel, now a member of Montclair Local’s governing board. Currently, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock fills the seat normally assigned to the mayor.

Spiller announced April 15 he’d appointed new school board members Crystal Hopkins, Eric Scherzer and Kathryn Weller-Demming to replace departing board members Jessica de Koninck, Eve Robinson and Sergio Gonzalez, effective at the board’s May 17 reorganization meeting. Once the new members are in place, the majority of the seven-member board will be individuals Spiller selected.

Gonzalez, in a lengthy statement read at the April meeting, accused Spiller of letting the Montclair Education Association dictate school policy and said the local union “effectively appoints” the board — accusing the mayor of having at least one departing member interview with the MEA’s president while being considered. Spiller called those claims “false and puzzling,” and said he didn’t direct board candidates to interview with anyone, though they all spoke to parents, current and former board members, Township Council members, school administrators and various educators.

Gonzalez didn’t say which departing board member he meant, though de Koninck had already announced her departure at a March meeting. Robinson told Montclair Local she choose not to seek reappointment, but she didn’t say when she made that decision or if she’d previously been up for consideration.