By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
A petition to have Montclair voters decide whether the township should have an elected school board or continue with its mayor-elected board has been deemed “sufficient,” the group pushing for the vote announced Saturday.
“This means that, barring a successful legal challenge or some other unforeseen event, the referendum question will be on the ballot on November 2,” Vote Montclair wrote in a blog post. Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a statement released Saturday, confirmed Vote Montclair had enough confirmed signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
Montclair is one of just 11 so-called “Type I” school districts in New Jersey, meaning the mayor appoints board members. The rest of the roughly 600 school districts in the state are “Type II,” with voters electing members.
Currently in Montclair, that means the power to appoint board members rests with Mayor Sean Spiller, also the current vice president and incoming president of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful union representing teachers and support staff. Critics — including former board member Sergio Gonzalez, whom Spiller passed over for reappointment this year — have called that a conflict of interest, but pushes for an elected board well predate Spiller’s own election. The matter has gone to the ballot five times since the 1960s, and each time, Montclairians have opted to keep an appointed board. The most recent referendum question, in 2009, was defeated 57% to 43%.
Spiller, for his part, has said he trusts voters to decide if an appointed or elected board is best for Montclair.
Vote Montclair’s petition needed 1,020 valid signatures to force the question on an elected or appointed board to the November ballot. In its blog post, Vote Montclair said Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves reported 1,396 of 2,004 signature sheets submitted on April 29 had been examined, with 1,033 found to be valid.
“This is a thrilling reminder of the power citizens have under the initiative system that is a cornerstone of local democracy in New Jersey,” Vote Montclair founder Erik D’Amato wrote in his blog post.
D’Amato had previously told Montclair of those 2,004 submitted signatures, 1,823 were collected digitally.
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.
D’Amato had said previously he worried about “aggressive measures to deny certification of the petition” would be seen for his effort as well.
The League of Women Voters for the Montclair Area has previously stated its support of an appointed board, but Communications Director Carmel Loughman said in April the organization is supportive of the referendum, which she said will prompt conversation on both sides of the issue. Loughman said the League members would vote on whether they want to revisit the issue and update their 2009 position at their May 26, 2021 annual meeting.
“Hopefully this would trigger a robust discussion among citizens on the merits of the position,” Loughman said.
Yacobellis, in his statement Saturday, congratulated Vote Montclair on a “well-executed effort,” but also said he hasn’t yet taken a position on whether and elected or appointed board is best.
“I love seeing democracy in action. This is a very complex, serious and historical issue and I hope that Montclair residents truly take the time to understand the arguments and make educated decisions,” he wrote. The councilman said he’d also been in touch with several groups about forums on the issue.
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.
— Includes previous reporting by Talia Wiener