By PETER YACOBELLIS
Special to Montclair Local
The easy thing for me to do as a politician when there is a divisive issue is to avoid, dodge and hide. But that’s not who I am as a person, and I vowed to myself that I would not let this office change who I am. I will always be transparent in letting you know how I feel, whether it’s the popular opinion or not. And I will always be engaged and responsive, even if that engagement and responsiveness creates contrast with how things may have been done historically.
I have decided to vote to change Montclair’s school district to a type II district, where Board of Education members would be directly elected by the people instead of appointed by the mayor. I encourage you to do the same.
I want to be clear – from what I have seen, I take no issue with any appointments Mayor Sean Spiller has made to the Board of Education. In fact, I’ve found the individuals he has appointed to be upstanding and terrific people. I’d likely vote for any of them if they were on the ballot for the school board.
But should any one woman or man have that much power? After these last few years in American politics, I’m of the mind that the more you can minimize one person’s power, spread that power out and push power to the people, the healthier a democracy is. The same is true for process. To me, the more transparent a process is and the more that process invites in different perspectives, the healthier the outcome and the more confidence the people have in that outcome.
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I believe that we need to invite fresh thinking and perspectives from the broader community into our government, at all levels. And we can do that by expanding the Board of Education from seven to nine individuals and having those individuals be directly elected by you instead of appointed by one person whom you may or may not have voted for, and who may or may not share your values.
As I look at the statistics that show us having the lowest enrollment in 22 years, the eye-popping turnover of superintendents, business administrators and other leaders, the persistent education equity issues and the unbelievable deterioration of our buildings; it’s clear to me that this system is broken and needs a tectonic jolt.
But I don’t say that without both pause and respect for everything this district has been through.
I have listened intently to all the arguments about the potential for candidates and/or factions with narrow agendas to take over the school board, or to be driven by single issues. Is that a risk? Maybe. But I think it’s a small one. Montclair residents are some of the most highly educated and engaged voters anywhere and I just simply don’t think you’re going to let that happen. I trust the outcome of a town-wide election that thousands of you participate in more than the judgment of any one woman or man who is mayor at any given time.
Because all nine Board of Education members would be directly elected by all Montclair voters, I’m confident that the strong majority opinion and values of this township – diversity, equity, fairness, investment in our facilities/programs and support for public education — will carry into those contests and most importantly, into the outcomes.
For those who are concerned about ensuring investment in public education isn’t diluted, that we maintain our magnet system and that we ensure all perspectives are represented, I’d say – isn’t that fate most secure in your hands?
With the current system, you have only one chance every four years to have any say or influence over school policy, with the election of the mayor. With the proposed system, you would have a say almost every year as some of the staggered terms of nine board members ended and they were re-elected or replaced.
To me, protecting our values as a community is easier when the community has direct control over the Board of Education and the direction of this school district. I trust you with that power. I hope you’ll trust yourselves with that power.
Vote yes on question three on your general election ballot.
Peter Yacobellis is a Montclair Township councilman at large.
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