By SERGIO GONZALEZ
Special to Montclair Local
The upcoming referendum on whether Montclair should switch from an appointed to elected board of education model is very different from the other choices township voters face.
Unlike the normal contests between candidates, it is quite literally a referendum on the value of elections, and of democratic norms. We are being asked whether direct elections are the best way to select those who set policy for the Township’s public schools, and whether voters in Montclair should have the same rights as those in 98% of New Jersey’s municipalities, as well as in school systems across the nation, where elected school boards are the norm.
There are some decent arguments for the appointed system, at least on paper. If there weren’t I would not have accepted then-Mayor Robert Jackson’s appointment in August 2019 to the Montclair Board of Education, on which I served until this past May. But from my experience serving on the board, I believe that the choice between an unelected and elected board in Montclair is obvious, and voters should choose to give themselves the power to elect future members.
One of the alleged benefits of an appointed system is a board more representative of the population demographically, but at the same time overrepresented in terms of certain school-related skills or knowledge, such as finance or facilities management. It has unfortunately not played out like this in practice in Montclair. Instead, the prime qualifications for appointment are the immediate political or economic interests of the mayor. Certainly, the current model has failed in terms of diversity, both in terms of professional background and demographics; I was the only Latinx on the board, but also one of just a handful coming from outside the tight-knit world of public education and public administration. Since my departure, the gap between the board and the people they serve has only grown wider.
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Another alleged upside of not following the norm of school board elections is that it leads to “less politics” around school policy. I can say from experience that this is false. If Montclair is exceptional for being among the 2% of municipalities without school board elections, it is even more of a standout for the toxic politics and political scheming around its public education system. And it is clear that one of the reasons for this is the absence of regular elections, and the resulting lack of transparency and democratic legitimacy.
If it feels that politics and non-transparency around our schools has been getting worse in recent years, it is not only due to the undeniably problematic situation in which the person with sole power to appoint members of the school board is also a full-time teachers’ union official. It is also because our expectations about transparency and responsiveness have been growing at the same time that the appointive board system has remained static. Just consider that the last time Montclair voters were asked to consider an elected board, in 2009, the first Facebook group had not yet been launched. An appointed board purposely cut off from the public is now a glaring anachronism, and will only become more of one as time goes on.
What matters most is the practical impact of this lack of accountability and effective community oversight: a school system that is not providing the education our children deserve. Despite its earlier reputation as a beacon of success, the Montclair Public Schools district is slipping on many objective measures of achievement. This is especially the case with regard to our most at-risk and underprivileged students, who cannot afford the enrichment and private tutoring options that have arisen in recent years to make up for the system’s shortcomings.
From my experience, the drawbacks that come with our model of an unelected board can be seen in each key area of underperformance the district faces, from excessive personnel turnover and legal expenses to the drawn-out and chaotic return to in-person schooling, as well as the appalling state of some district facilities and the toxic situation outlined in the “whistleblower report” about the buildings and grounds department. It is an unacceptable status quo that in every case disproportionately burdens our most vulnerable students, and further complicates the work of our talented and dedicated superintendent, Dr. Jonathan Ponds. It is also one that opponents of an elected board are implicitly arguing for.
It should be noted that several arguments made by supporters of the status quo are not only false, but frankly insulting to the township and its residents. Chief among these is the notion that if given a vote, Montclairons would summarily discard the district’s long standing commitment to racial and socioeconomic equity in student assignments and school funding, or “defund” the schools. Instead, the only real threat to these commitments is a continued decline in the district due to its subordination to backroom politics, rather than more effective and transparent governance by an engaged community.
This leads to probably the most absurd argument made by opponents of an elected school board: that there aren’t enough qualified Montclarians willing to stand for election. If nothing else, our township is brimming with energetic and passionate people with an interest in public policy, and some of our citizen-legislators on the Township Council have offered a master class in tech-savvy constituent service.
I am excited about the opportunity I may soon have as a voter to help decide who sets our school policy, and I am hopeful that a majority of those who turn out in November are as well. We can do this!
Sergio Gonzalez is a member of Vote Montclair, the organization that successfully petitioned to place a referendum question on the November ballot asking if Montclair should have an elected school board instead of its current mayor-appointed one. He is an executive at Dell Technologies and was a member of the Montclair Board of Education from 2019 to 2021.
A version of this piece that ran in the Sept. 16 print edition of Montclair Local included an incorrect first name for former Mayor Robert Jackson; the error was on the part of Montclair Local staff, not the submitter. A correction will appear in the Sept. 23 print edition of Montclair Local.
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