By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Montclair Local is formally announcing the lineup for its forum on whether Montclair should have an elected or appointed Board of Education — to be held virtually on Thursday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m.
The discussion will be livestreamed at MontclairLocal.news, Facebook Live at Facebook.com/MontclairLocal and Montclair’s TV34. Facebook Live viewers can additionally comment on the discussion and ask questions in a live chat for our moderator’s consideration. Facebook Live viewers can register in advance to be notified automatically when the event is starting.
A recorded version of the event will remain accessible indefinitely at MontclairLocal.news and on Facebook.
Visit MontclairLocal.news/donations to make your tax-deductible contribution today, to keep Montclair Local strong and help us do even more to serve the amazing community of Montclair.
Got questions in advance, or don’t have Facebook? Email email@example.com if you’ve got a question you’d like the event’s moderator to consider for the panel. We’ll be keeping an eye on our inbox through the event.
The participants will be:
• Sergio Gonzalez, a former Montclair Board of Education member, appointed by then-Mayor Robert Jackson in 2019. Gonzalez will represent Vote Montclair, which successfully petitioned to put the question to voters on whether Montclair should continue with a Type I school district (with a mayor-appointed board) or switch to a Type II district (with an elected one).
• Diane Anglin, chair of the Montclair NAACP’s education committee. The committee has voted to support the change to an elected board, though the overall chapter has not taken a position. Anglin will represent the committee’s stance.
• Peter Braley, a longtime resident of Montclair with two children who’ve gone through or remain in the school system. He was recently chosen to be president of the Oratorio Society of New Jersey. Braley will represent the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, which has endorsed continuing as a Type I district.
• Johanna Wright, an education management professional, elected member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education and member of the Essex County College Board of Trustees (which is appointed by the county’s commissioners). She will additionally represent the LWV.
The panel will be moderated by Dale Russakoff, who was a reporter for The Washington Post for 28 years, covering topics including politics, education and social policy. She is the author of “The Prize,” an account of the attempt to remake Newark’s schools — and the fraught aftermath of a $100 million gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to the school system. Russakoff is a member of Montclair Local’s advisory board.
This fall, Montclair voters are faced with deciding whether to keep the rare Type I system, seen in only about 3% of New Jersey districts, or move to the much more common Type II. Under the Type II system, Montclair’s seven-member school board would expand to nine people. It would do away with the separate Board of School Estimate, which has final say over school budgets and must fix costs for capital improvement bonds before they’re sent to the Township Council. Most budgets instead would be approved by the school board itself, but would be forced before voters if they exceed a state 2% cap on year-to-year property tax levy growth. The change would go into effect immediately.
Many proponents of the mayor-appointed system argue that it better helps maintain diversity on the board, protects Montclair’s magnet system and guards big-money electioneering or the rise of single-issue candidates. Proponents of an elected board say it’s a matter of democratic representation — that voters deserve a chance to elect the body responsible not just for the educational welfare of students attending the public schools, but guiding the spending responsible for the bulk of property taxes.
Montclair has put five such referendum questions before voters since the 1960s. Each time, residents have opted to keep an appointed board. The most recent referendum question, in 2009, was defeated 57% to 43%.
This year, voters could additionally be influenced by recent history and current events. The district has seen a parade of superintendents in the last several years. It has struggled through issues such as structural deficiencies in school buildings some community members argue have gone unaddressed for too long, and contentious debates with some parents and the Montclair Education Association over its plans for reopening schools (the district sued the union before coming to an agreement to bring teachers back for hybrid learning last spring).
At the moment, the power to appoint board members sits with Mayor Sean Spiller, also president of the powerful New Jersey Education Association — a pair of roles some, including Vote Montclair’s leadership, argue is an unworkable conflict (though the group says Montclair deserves to elect its board members regardless of who’s in the mayor’s seat). The LWV has also flagged the dual roles as a potential conflict, and suggested putting in place an advisory committee to help guide board appointments.
Election Day is Nov. 2, but mail-in voting has already started. Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked on or before Nov. 2 and must be received by the Essex Board of Elections on or before Nov. 8; they can be mailed or placed in several drop boxes throughout the county. Applications for vote-by-mail ballots can be received until Oct. 26 by the county clerk, and can be obtained at essexboardofelections.com/forms-resources. Early voting begins Oct. 23 and continues through Oct. 31. Locations for drop boxes, early voting sites and in-person voting on Election Day can be found at essexclerk.com.