By RENÉE BASKERVILLE
Special to Montclair Local
I write this as someone who served for 12 years on the Montclair Township Council and three years on the Montclair Board of Education, and continue to witness the retrogression of politics in Montclair.
The political scene in Montclair is beginning to mirror the national political scene, with “pay to play” emerging as the new modus operandi for Montclair politics. Documented voter suppression and voter nullification with no remediation resulted in 1,200 voters, who cast timely ballots, having their ballots discarded, depriving them of a cherished constitutional right in the last Montclair election. Hundreds of Montclair voters, voting by mail, were proved to have been denied the right to have their votes counted. In a subsequent election, there were inexplicable and unremedied candidate omissions from the ballot, raising again the specter of voter suppression.
A recent independent, non-partisan review of the May 2020 election in Montclair clearly illustrates candidates with greater access to campaign funding and vast employee payrolls significantly leveraged a competitive advantage to achieve a razor-thin margin of victory. The person declared victor by 195 votes spent nearly $57 per vote as compared with my campaign, which spent less than $1.97 per vote. Seventy-five percent of funds raised by the candidate declared the victor came from statewide special interest groups in what has traditionally, and proudly, been an election determined by Montclairians.
For the above reasons and others, I have consistently opposed exclusively elected school boards. I understand that this position is contrary to the norm. The vast majority of school districts are governed by elected school boards. It is believed by many that electing the members of the school board will yield individuals who are more reflective of and responsive to the stakeholders in a district. Some even argue that the electoral process for school board members is a good education tool. However, there are concerns. Disproportionately, elected board members are less diverse than the communities from which they originate. There is often also outsized representation of those who are college-educated and homeowners compared to the broader electorate.
Voting districts that embrace the election ideals of fair and unfettered elections, in which every vote is counted, and every qualifying person is able to run, are those that display the degree of accountability needed to elect a Board of Education without further checks and balances. Flooding local elections with special interest money or money from senior state officials who upended those who were “unbought and unbossed,” like Shirley Chisholm, fell short of the expectations of Montclairians. Most Montclairians do not want a repeat, especially not for the most important task of selecting the Board of Education — those whose decisions will have a direct and lasting impact on our children, our most precious commodities.
It is for the above reasons that I believe that a caucus-hybrid process for selecting school board members can best serve Montclair at this time. This would enable the type of transparency and stakeholder representation that the best elections foster. It would also ensure the type of diversity of wards, skill sets, servant backgrounds and ideas that would set the stage for an excellent board that embraces a rich and robust exchange of ideas, reflective of those in every ward in the township.
My hybrid model would utilize a three-phased caucus. In phase one, we would have a town hall meeting open to everyone in the township. At the initial caucus, interested candidates would register to appear before the electorate and share their visions, values, qualifications, priorities and expected impacts on the board. Through an elective process, registered voters in attendance would reduce the candidate pool to the requisite number of candidates to present to a group called the School Board Community Recommendation Commission. The commission would interview the candidates and recommend a final pool with three more candidates than the requisite number of school board members. These candidates would be presented to the Township Council to select the final members of the school board. This process would not be unlike the way in which we have vetted candidates for our superintendent of schools, setting a precedent for the success of this model.
Until we evidence a commitment to ensuring “non-partisan” elections in which people of the township, not representatives of senior state officials, elect our representatives, we should adapt the proposed three-phased school board member identification process. We must find a way to make sure those who get on the school board reflect the richness of the diversity of people, interests, and issues of paramount importance to attaining and maintaining an exemplary, stigma-free environment where students feel comfortable engaging, sharing their feelings, and asking and responding to questions.
Many things are wrong with the way that we have been appointing school board members. Huge conflicts of interest can manifest in a system that embraces a single individual appointing the school board. Not only are the futures of our children and families at stake, also the future of the township, the region and the state. If we jeopardize the futures of our children, we are putting at risk the economy, public security, community strength, excellence, justice and the ethos of Montclair.
As we think as a township about ways to improve the process of appointing our school board members — a Type 1 school board — learning lessons from the anti-democratic processes used in the last two elections in Montclair, please join me in opting to not turn back the hands of time in Montclair. We want to put in place a system that will increase the likelihood of our having an excellent, diverse, “unbought and unbossed” school board.
Dr. Renée Baskerville is a Montclair resident, a physician, a political activist, a former school board member and a former Fourth Ward councilwoman of 12 years.
Editor’s notes: New Jersey’s Title 18a, which lays out rules for school district governance, does not describe a district structure of the type suggested in the guest column above. Montclair currently operates under a Type I format, in which the mayor or other chief executive appoints school board members. A referendum before voters in November proposes conversion to a Type II district, with a voter-elected board.
The analysis of 2020 campaign spending referenced above was conducted by the Sunlight Policy Center, a critic of the New Jersey Education Association. Sunlight’s analysis counted, as spending on then-mayoral candidate and now-Mayor Sean Spiller’s behalf, $156,110 in expenditures by NJEA super PAC Garden State Forward described on Election Law Enforcement Commission as for a May 2000 municipal election, but with a locality of “statewide.” The NJEA has not responded to messages from Montclair Local seeking clarification on whether that spending was for Montclair races, as Sunlight argues is fair to assume. Spiller is president of the NJEA and was its vice president at the time of the election.
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