By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

On Nov. 2, Montclairians will head to the polls to decide whether the Montclair School District should continue with a Type I school district with a mayor-appointed Board of Education, or a Type II district with an elected one.

If residents vote for the switch, other changes would occur as well. The board would gain two seats. The Board of School Estimate, which sets the school tax rate and budget and approves capital improvement projects, would be eliminated. Bonding for capital projects would go to public referendums. The school board would generally set its own budgets, but would have to put them before voters if it looks to exceed a 2% cap on annual property tax levy growth. Terms would remain three years.

Montclair Local Thursday, Oct. 21 held a forum with four panelists — two favoring the switch, and two against it. Dale Russakoff, a reporter for The Washington Post for 28 years and member of Montclair Local’s advisory board, moderated the discussion.

From left: Sergio Gonzalez, Diane Anglin, Peter Braley, Johanna Wright
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The panelists who advocated for the switch were Sergio Gonzalez — a former Montclair Board of Education member whom Mayor Sean Spiller passed over for reappointment this year — and Diane Anglin, chair of the Montclair NAACP’s education committee.

Gonzalez represented Vote Montclair, which successfully petitioned this year to put the question of a district type change before voters. The NAACP education committee Anglin heads has voted to support the change to an elected board, though the overall chapter has not taken a position; Anglin represented the committee’s stance.

Gonzalez and Anglin said voters, under the current system, have no voice in selecting BOE members beyond picking a mayor, that nine members can better represent Montclair and that voting is a right. Many proponents of an appointed board argue single-issue candidates and budget hawks could dominate elections, compromising support for school spending and the district’s long-cherished magnet school system.

The two panelists in favor of Montclair remaining a Type I district were both selected for the forum by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair area: Peter Braley, a longtime resident of Montclair with two children who have been in the school system, and former resident 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. The League has endorsed an appointed board, but also suggested the process be guided by an advisory committee. But the proponents of the elected board argued: Such an advisory group isn’t a function of a district under New Jersey law, and could be disbanded or disregarded at any mayoral administration’s choosing. 

Both Braley and Wright said they believed a Type II system would risk seeing bonds rejected, sacrifice diversity on the board, invite special interest groups with money to get onto the board, politicize the board and jeopardize the district’s magnet system. Those arguments were met with counters that there was already big special interest money in Montclair’s last mayoral election, and that needed schools infrastructure work has been put off for years under the current system. 

Mayoral appointments

One X-factor in this year’s referendum question that didn’t apply in the five times since the 1960s voters have previously rejected changes to elected boards: Mayor Sean Spiller is also also an officer in the New Jersey Education Association — its vice president during the 2020 election (when the powerful statewide teachers’ union lent him significant campaign support) and its president now. In 2016, then-Councilman Spiller was barred by a judge in 2016 from serving on the BoSE because of his role with the union, so Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock serves in his stead.

But the mayor still appoints board of education members — having selected four of the seven currently in place so far. 

And panelists on both sides of the discussion flagged that as a complication — one the LWV has sought to mitigate with its suggestion of an advisory board. 

Anglin said she first met Spiller “when he came knocking on our doors, a young guy running for the Third Ward.”

“We met him, loved him. So I’m going to start with that. Should he be our mayor? In my opinion, no,” she said. “That was a big conflict of interest when we know that he has to appoint school board members and would be sitting on the Board of School Estimate.”

But both she and Gonzalez said their position doesn’t come down only to the current mayor’s roles — that an elected board is fairer to voters. 

Braley said that the township should not risk a system that has worked for the “uniqueness of Montclair” for decades over one mayor. And he reminded the audience that in last year’s council elections, voters chose Spiller knowing of his “day job.”

Anglin said that the board is already politicized, pointing to dissension within the board over the years. A former mayor told her that he made appointments based on “a feeling,” she said.

“That ain’t right,” she said. 

Spiller didn’t respond to a recent inquiry from Montclair Local about how he makes appointments, when similar questions were sent to several former mayors to explore their views on the possible change of district type, and their past practices in the Type I system. Several former mayors said they consulted with advisory committees on the appointments. 

Braley said it’s easy to point the finger at an appointed board for problems such as degraded facilities and a continuing achievement gap, but he attributed most of those problems to lack of leadership with the district’s rotation of superintendents.  Since the departure of Frank Alvarez as superintendent in 2012, Montclair has had six permanent or interim superintendents. Current Superintendent Jonathon Ponds was appointed in July 2020. Gonzalez said in the debate “we can kiss Ponds goodbye if we don’t make the change.”

Wright, who ran and won a seat on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education last year, said that in her experience elected boards could be created with “dark money,” and that boards can go “rogue and become dysfunctional.” 

She said that COVID-19 brought about the urgency of facility and ventilation upgrades not only in Montclair, but across the United States.

“There’s old infrastructure everywhere. Many districts are dealing with the same issues,” Wright said.

Magnet schools and bus funding

Wright and Braley said that with an elected board, Montclair’s magnet system — where students don’t necessarily attend the elementary and middle schools closest to their homes, but can apply to ones throughout the district based on learning styles — could be at risk. They said busing that carries students across Montclair’s neighborhoods could be defunded by elected members answering to constituents seeking tax relief.

“I have heard nothing here tonight that provides any credence than an elected board is going to improve anything in our town, and instead an elected board runs the risk of losing our magnet schools, the risk of bond referendums being rejected by voters and the risk of special-interest politics and money staining the process,” Braley said. 

In 1977, Montclair moved away from neighborhood schools to a choice system as part of a voluntary desegregation plan. That followed a landmark lawsuit more than a decade earlier, Rice vs. Montclair Board of Education, seeking desegregation of the district’s schools. At the time, then-state Commissioner of Education Carl L. Marburger, cited a racial imbalance in the district’s schools, and said “however difficult, state law demands that the problem be met and resolved,” the New York Times reported in 1977

Beginning with only two magnet programs, the plan has grown and now includes all schools.

In 2010, a new student enrollment policy was approved by the Board of Education. Under the plan, students are now assigned to three zones based on census data, including household income and Title 1 status (eligibility for free or reduced lunch). Families rank their preferences for schools when registering. They’re ultimately assigned to schools based on a system that weighs those preferences and balances representation from each zone in each school. 

Gonzalez, at the forum argued Montclair is not at risk of losing its magnet system because it is court-ordered, citing a 2018 Montclair Local article that referenced the Rice case

“So unless something changed, it’s not on the table,” Gonzalez said.

And the magnet system, he said, is “part of the value that draws people here, and they make a choice. Look at the map. It’s a blue town. … It’s in our blood. It’s in our DNA. There’s zero risk to the magnet system.”

But an attorney who worked on the current version of Montclair’s magnet program told Montclair Local Friday no court order requires the magnet system.

Elise Boddie, former director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Educational Fund and current law professor at Rutgers Law School, worked on the redesign of Montclair’s magnet school system in 2007 after a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated voluntary school desegregation plans, saying a district can’t maintain integration by explicitly taking students’ race into account

Under state law, Montclair has a duty to remedy segregation, but the methods by which it is achieved are not prescribed by a court, she said.

The Montclair school district’s attorney has not returned an email sent Friday asking what her understanding of any court order affecting the district is, or what it entails.

Diversity of board

Wright and Braley voiced their concerns with elections, saying they are expensive, may not draw a diverse group of candidates and voters may not respond to them. Appointments can ensure that the board is represented in diversity and by ward, they said. 

Anglin pointed to the number of residents who have backgrounds in special education, human resources, equity and finance who speak out at board meetings but are limited to three minutes. She contended elections would open the door for a larger selection of board members, and voters would have a chance to question candidates on their policies. 

As for voter turnout, Gonzalez countered the elections would be held in November and could actually increase voter turnout.

“Voting is a right. Right now I vote for one guy or gal who decides [the BOE],” Gonzalez said.

Braley said that although “there is power in choice, no one can guarantee you will have a choice [when it comes to an elected board].”

When Montclair last put a referendum question on a change to an elected board before voters in 2009, the question was defeated 57% to 43%. Just 3% of New Jersey school districts are Type I.

The forum can be watched in this post, and will additionally be rebroadcast on Montclair’s TV34 station at the following times:

  • Saturday, Oct. 23, 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, Oct. 24, 5:30 p.m.
  • Monday, Oct. 25, 10:30 a.m.
  • Tuesday, Oct. 26, 4 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Oct. 27, 8:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, Oct. 28, 11 a.m.
  • Saturday, Oct. 30, 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, Oct. 31, 5:30 p.m.
  • Monday, Nov. 1, 10:30 a.m.