GRAPHIC BY LOUIS HOCHMAN

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

In November, Montclair residents will decide whether to change their school district from Type I to Type II.

If they vote for the change, Board of Education members would be selected through elections, as in most New Jersey communities, instead of by mayoral appointment. The Board of School Estimate, a separate body that formally sets the school tax rate and budget, would be eliminated; bonding would go to public referendums instead of the BoSE as well. 

And Montclair’s school board would gain two members — taking the total to nine. 

Montclair Local reached out to five former mayors who worked under the Type I format, serving on the BoSE (one seat is reserved for the mayor) and appointing school board members.

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Those who responded were split on the question of whether Montclair should change to a Type II district. All agreed that the decision should come down to more considerations than a perceived conflict of interest by just one mayor.

Montclair is one of 11 Type I districts in New Jersey. Generally, in a Type I district, the Board of School Estimate will adopt a resolution seeking bonding for capital projects; the municipality will then adopt a bond ordinance supporting that project. However, in Type II districts, bonding for capital projects must be approved by public referendum. 

Montclair has broached the issue five times since the 1960s, with all five referendums failing and Montclairians opting to keep an appointed board. The most recent referendum question, in 2009, was defeated 57% to 43%.

But over the last year and a half, Mayor Sean Spiller’s role as an officer in the powerful New Jersey Education Association — now the union’s president, and its vice president before that — has been criticized by some residents as a conflict of interest with his powers in the Type 1 system. 

In 2015, a group calling itself Montclair Kids First successfully sued to have then-Councilman Spiller removed from membership on the BoSE, alleging his role with the NJEA was a conflict. Montclair Kids First’s members included Matthew Frankel, now a member of Montclair Local’s governing board. 

After Spiller won the mayoral race in 2020, he appointed Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock to be the chair of the BoSE, a role the mayor normally serves. Spiller has, however, retained the power to select school board members — appointing four so far.

Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned for a referendum on becoming a Type II district, has pointed to Spiller’s dual roles but also argued an elected school board is more accountable to the community. The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, which has taken the position that Montclair should remain a Type I district, still flagged the dual roles in a recent guest column for Montclair Local — saying “the troubling question is whether Mr. Spiller will appoint strong, independent volunteers who will work only for the benefit of students, or whether he will appoint persons who are aligned with the teachers union, perhaps to the detriment of students” — but suggesting the deputy mayor be given the responsibility of selecting board members instead. 

Former mayors speak out

Montclair Local reached out the township’s former mayors for comment on this story: Robert Jackson (1987-1988 and 2012-2020), Jerry Fried (2008-2012), Ed Remsen (2004-2008), Current Councilman Robert J. Russo (2000-2004) and Clifford Lindholm II (1988-1992). Montclair Local was unable to contact former Mayor James Bishop (1992-1996).

Of those, only Jackson declined an interview. Montclair Local also reached out to Spiller by email Monday, but as of Tuesday had not received a response. Spiller has previously said he trusts voters to decide whether an elected or appointed board is best for Montclair.

Fried said by email: “Too few residents know that when you run for mayor in a Type I district like Montclair, you are primarily asking the people to give you the authority to set the course for the Montclair Public Schools, not the municipal government, which runs the police, fire, public works, recreation, etc. and where the mayor has an equally weighted vote [with Township Council members]. This [schools] is the only area in which a mayor has sole responsibility. In virtually all other affairs you have the same power as any other council member and the majority rules.”

All four former mayors said that although elections may lead to a balance in representation on a school board, appointments can guarantee a balance of skills and experience in education, law, finance, culture and facilities, and in diversity.

“The pros of a Type I district are obviously the ability to shape policy for our public schools by appointing the right people who were as committed as I was to public education, and to be able to influence the budget process as chair of the BoSE,” Russo said. “However, the potential abuses or errors that can occur if the wrong choices and appointments are made have led me to have an open mind on requests for an elected BOE.” 

As mayor when making school board appointments, Russo said, he sought “continuity and stability” in the leadership of the board and the administration of the schools. When making appointments, he sought guidance from the district’s parent-teacher associations, the Montclair Education Association, the schools superintendent, council members and current and former school board members, he said.  

“I wanted individuals with experience in the field of education and business, who had a commitment to public education and experience in community service as well as the private sector,” Russo said.  

Fried said he created an advisory committee of council members to help select school board members, and said he felt that was successful in garnering a diverse selection of candidates — in the first year processing more than 20 applicants. 

He is now a strong supporter of having an elected Board of Education, after witnessing what he calls the distressing state of the schools and “the revolving door that has brought us almost annual changes in superintendent.”

“I feel that our best bet to return to excellence in our schools is in fair and open elections, and in the change in culture that would come in having these seats filled by citizens who feel as I do that excellence in the Montclair Public Schools is the key to success for Montclair in every area, from property values to true democracy,” Fried said.

Remsen said for reappointments, he sought the advice of the Board of Education chair and the superintendent to get a sense of how active and engaged a given member was, and he would attend board meetings to witness that engagement.

For new appointments he would identify “gaps” in the school board composition as to race, gender, skill set and special education focus, and would consult with council members on recommendations, he said.

“I have always felt that mayoral appointment and BoSE approval of the budget was the best strategy for Montclair despite people often saying it’s not fair or particularly democratic that we do not get to vote on the largest part of our tax bill,” Remsen said. “The Type I model, in my opinion, was a better model for us and a better way to protect the goals of the integrated nature of the public schools. 

“But this only still works if the process is not highly politicized, as many people perceive it at present because of the mayor’s role with the NJEA. Secondly, [it works if] the BoSE members take the time to read the budget and do the due diligence — if we play it straight up and don’t look like they are rubber-stamping the BOE and superintendent’s desires.” 

Remsen said he mostly still leans toward a Type I district.

“We shouldn’t change just because there is a once-in-our-lifetime situation,” he said, referring to Spiller serving as mayor and NJEA president. “If the taxpayers want a say in the budget, BOE members and capital expenditures, then the change will happen. But it will be new ground for us.”

Lindholm, who also served as school board president before becoming mayor, said he also sought the input of the superintendent, the board president and council members when making appointments. While he was serving on the board, the district was sued to integrate the schools.  At the time there were only five board members, who served for five-year terms. As mayor, he sought to appoint a member from the African American community, he said.

Lindholm said he is concerned that in today’s political climate it may be hard to draw enough people and a diverse enough selection of candidates to run. He is also concerned that elections would lead to politicizing the process and the school board itself. 

If the BoSE is eliminated, Lindholm said, he is concerned with losing oversight to the budget process, as “two heads are better than one.”

Voters should weigh the pros and cons of changing to Type II, he added.

“I would hate for one individual to be the cause of this change. Mayors come and go. The district has prospered under Type I,” Lindholm said.

Capital improvements

Currently the BoSE also approves the funding for capital improvements before sending it to the council. 

Remsen is particularly concerned that a newly proposed plan for $60 million in capital improvements to schools — much of it for HVAC systems and other ventilation updates — could become mired in bureaucracy, as it would have to go to referendum if the move to Type II passes. Under a Type II district all capital improvements will not only have to be funded by the district, not the township, but will also have to be approved by the voters. 

“We are not talking about $5-$6 million, this is $60 million,” Remsen said.

Lindholm agreed. Referendums are a challenge to get passed and the schools may suffer, he said.

“If you don’t have children in the schools and are concerned with your tax bill, you will vote it down,” he said.
According to New Jersey School Boards Association data from 2017 to 2020 on school construction proposals, 66% passed referendums. In 2020, that number rose to 69%.

There is also a question about the district’s lack of a credit history. Since bonding has been done by the township, which carries a very good AAA credit rating, the interest rate is low. 

As Remsen noted, the district has never bonded before to establish a credit history.

“If the district becomes Type II and starts issuing its own debt it would be rated as its own entity,” Douglas Goldmacher, vice president-senior analyst for Moody’s, which sets the credit rating for districts and municipalities, told Montclair Local by email Tuesday. “This is the more common structure in N.J. Districts may or may not have the same rating as the overlapping municipality.”

In 2017, an Essex County Superior Court judge prevented the Essex County clerk from certifying the results of a referendum to change the City of Orange’s school district from Type I to Type II. The school board there had argued, in part, that voters weren’t informed about all the consequences of the change, including that capital projects would be based on the district’s credit rating, rather than the city’s, according to an account of the dispute by the New Jersey School Boards Association

But Vote Montclair founder Erik D’Amato said he has been told by municipal analysts at several of the rating agencies that cover Montclair and New Jersey that the rating of the district would be the same as the township’s, or so close that the debt of the two entities would be treated as fungible by markets/raters.