By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN, JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS and TALIA WIENER
news@montclairlocal.news

There are three referendum questions before Montclair voters on this year’s ballot. But nobody in town seems to be talking about the first two, on gambling regulations.

In local Facebook groups, in two forums (one organized by Montclair Local, with the replay still up at MontclairLocal.news, and the other by Councilman David Cummings, who favors an appointed school board), and in dozens of letters and guest columns for this paper’s opinion pages, one issue has been debated more fiercely than any other for months:

Should Montclair retain the Type I school system with a mayor-appointed Board of Education that has served it for decades, which advocates say protects against electioneering and single-issue candidates, and which some see as a vital line of defense for the district’s cherished magnet schools? Appointed members don’t have to run campaigns, or invite in the political money and process that comes with them, proponents of the current system say.

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“That financial pressure that can come to bear on the decision-making in an elected board. You don’t have that with an appointed board,” Dan Gill, a teacher for more than 50 years at Glenfield Middle School (as well as the father of County Commissioner Brendan Gill) said Monday, Oct. 26 at the school’s auditorium, at the Cummings forum. “Somebody gets appointed. There’s no financial consideration.”

Or should it become a Type II district with an elected Board of Education, as 97% of other New Jersey communities have — a transition that its proponents say is just a simple matter of democratic fairness, and would be a better bulwark against special interests that can currently target a single mayor’s race? 

“Voting is a right. Right now I vote for one guy or gal who decides [the BOE],” former Board of Education member Sergio Gonzalez said at Montclair Local’s forum, held Oct. 21 online and simulcast on Montclair’s TV34. He was representing Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put the question on the ballot.

There’s more in play than the makeup of the board. The change to Type II would add two seats to the school board — for a total of nine, with three seats up for election every year. It would eliminate the separate Board of School Estimate, which approves school budgets, and reviews and fixes costs for capital improvements before they go to the Township Council for bonding.

Bonding measures would go to voters — which advocates of an appointed board worry could mean tax-sensitive property owners could tank spending. The school board itself would usually pass its own budgets, but they’d be sent to voters if they exceed a 2% year-to-year cap on property levy growth.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Early voting continues at several Essex County sites through Sunday, and mail-in ballots can be dropped off at drop boxes or postmarked any time through 8 p.m. on Election Day. 

Watch the replay of the Montclair Local forum

Representation, accountability 

In many cases, proponents of an appointed board argue it helps preserve elements of what make Montclair special; proponents of an elected board counter that the appointment system is already failing in that mission.

For instance, many who advocate for the appointed board say a mayor can emphasize diversity of background and skills. A mayor can bring in board members from throughout Montclair’s four wards; an elected board would be selected in an at-large system.

“People will say, ‘Well, you know people in Montclair are very engaged. And we wouldn’t have that kind of a problem here,’” Gill said at the Cummings forum. “But I think that that is really something that we have to be concerned about.”

But Gonzalez, whom Mayor Sean Spiller passed over for reappointment earlier this year, noted at the Montclair Local forum that there are no Latinos on the current board. And Diane Anglin, chair of the Montclair NAACP’s education committee and representing its pro-elected position (though the chapter overall has no stated position), said diversity of race alone doesn’t equal representation. 

“So a couple of years ago, I think our (then)-mayor appointed people, and people thought because they were skinfolk, they were kinfolk, and that wasn’t true,” she said. “The board had more contention and arguing.”

She 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 to address the district. She contended in elections, voters would have a chance to question candidates on their policies. 

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, appeared at both forums. She and Montclair parent Peter Braley represented the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, which has taken a pro-appointed position for years, but which advocates for an advisory committee to inform the mayor’s choices.

“There really isn’t very much difference,” she said at the Cummings forum. “You’re gonna run into the same problems within an elected board that you have with an appointed board.”

But, she argued, a well-connected candidate with financial backing, with “the money … the email list, the knowledge and the people to run,” can easily swing an election by “catering to the uninformed.”

That, those who favor the elected board say, is precisely the risk Montclair confronts now.

“One special interest candidate controls our town and education system,” Gonzalez said at the Montclair Local forum. “Simply the proposal is a check and balance to ensure our voices actually make a difference. Doesn’t nine opportunities to direct education outweigh one?”

The Spiller X-factor

One X-factor in this year’s referendum that didn’t apply in the five times since the 1960s voters have previously rejected changes to elected boards: Spiller is also an officer in the New Jersey Education Association — its vice president during the 2020 election (when the powerful teachers union lent him significant campaign support, helping him radically outspend opponent Renee Baskerville in a tight race) and its president now. In 2016, then-Councilman Spiller was barred by a judge from serving on the Board of School Estimate because of his role with the union, so Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock served in his stead. Current Montclair Local governing board member Matthew Frankel had been part of a group that sued to remove Spiller from the board (the paper didn’t exist at the time).

But the mayor still appoints Board of Education members, and Spiller has selected four of the seven currently in place so far. 

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. 

(The union, for its part, doesn’t have a stance on whether Montclair or any other district should have a Type I or Type II system, Communications Director Steven Baker told Montclair Local last week.)

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.”

Gonzalez has railed against Spiller’s role in appointing the board, alleging this spring the mayor let the Montclair Education Association sign off on appointments and effectively run the board, claims Spiller called “false and puzzling.

But both Gonzalez and Anglin said their position doesn’t come down only to the current mayor’s roles. And they noted an advisory board wouldn’t have legal weight under New Jersey statutes that define school system structures; a mayor can disband or disregard one. 

Still, Braley reminded the audience that in last year’s council elections, voters chose Spiller knowing of his “day job.”

And several former mayors, interviewed by Montclair Local in recent weeks about their views on the referendum question, said the question shouldn’t come down to a situation that applies to just one mayor.

“We shouldn’t change just because there is a once-in-our-lifetime situation,” Ed Remsen, who was Montclair’s mayor from 2004 through 2008, said. “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.”

The magnet system

Montclair’s magnet system, resident and attorney Elise C. Boddie recently wrote in a letter to Montclair Local, is “the pride of this town.”

Through the system, students aren’t sent to the schools closest to them, but are asked to pick their preferences based on learning styles. Those are then balanced against a formula designed to ensure representation in each school from three zones based on census data, including household income and Title 1 status (eligibility for free or reduced lunch).

That formula is the most recent version of a system that was first developed in the 1970s, following the 1967 ruling Rice vs. Montclair Board of Education, when then-state Commissioner of Education Carl L. Marburger, citing a racial imbalance in the district’s schools, said “however difficult, state law demands that the problem be met and resolved,” as The New York Times reported in 1977

“Already there are rumblings about dismantling our district’s system of transportation, which is the cornerstone of a successful magnet program (How else could kids get to school across town with busy parents and caregivers who work?),” Boddie wrote in her letter. “People are too sophisticated to say the bad part out loud,” she wrote. “So instead we hear sly references to ‘busing,’ which has long been racial code.”

Gonzalez, at the Montclair Local forum, argued Montclair is not at risk of losing its magnet system because of the court case, citing a 2018 article by the newspaper that referenced the Rice case: “So unless something changed, it’s not on the table,” he said. 

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.”

Boddie, a former director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Educational Fund and current law professor at Rutgers Law School, had been part of the Montclair Superintendent’s Task Force on Integration, which redesigned Montclair’s magnet school system in 2007 after a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated voluntary school desegregation plans by saying a district can’t maintain integration by explicitly taking students’ races 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 order affecting the district is.

Erik D’Amato, Vote Montclair’s founder, made the case for trusting voters at the Cummings forum: “The appointed system is an authoritarian system that is just about the absence of democracy. Democracy has some problems, but we live with it. This town could use a little more of it.”

Bonding and budgets

If Montclair moves to an elected system, the BoSE would be gone. Bond initiatives would be subject to direct voter scrutiny. Taxpayers would bear the cost of running any special elections. 

In a Town Square guest column in this week’s Montclair Local, Cummings — who in addition to being a councilman serving the Fourth Ward is a former school board member and was recently appointed to the Board of School Estimate — noted the case of Clifton, where an elected board proposed and voters approved a $168 million school bonding measure by a 2-to-1 margin.

“That sounds impressive — until you look at the numerical facts that show of the 54,000 registered voters in Clifton, roughly 4,500 exercised their right to vote in that election. Less than 8% of registered voters determined what 100% of the residents paid in taxes,” he wrote.

That’s a concern many who favor an appointed board share — that with low voter turnout, an elected system isn’t very representative or democratic.

But Gonzalez, at the Montclair Local forum, noted board elections would be held in November, when most other races take place (though Montclair’s municipal races take place every four years in May). That, he said, could actually increase voter turnout.

The system of passing a bond through the school board, BoSE and eventually the council, Cummings argued, helps protect taxpayers from excessive spending while giving due consideration to schools’ needs.

Yet to some advocates of an elected board, the current system has proven dysfunctional. They point to the situation now in play: Time is running out to advance a bond for $15.5 million HVAC work for the district’s aging schools (where district leaders struggle to assure parents their children are safe in the coronavirus pandemic) before the referendum could upend the bonding process entirely. 

Last week, Hurlock angrily rebutted callers to a Township Council meeting who accused the BoSE of running out the clock on the repairs, saying it was the school district that was failing to provide needed information or call for BoSE meetings that would advance the process. Some school board members, in the same week, said they’d been waiting on the BoSE to move ahead. But one way or another, there are only days left for both the BoSE and council to act, if they hope to bond before the election takes place. 

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 amid a the six superintendents or interim superintentendes Montclair has had since 2012. 

D’Amato, at the Cummings forum, acknowledged he couldn’t promise an elected board would get more done.

“And am I going to tell you, ‘Oh, it’s going to magically lead to buildings being fixed?’ No,” he said. “But it will provide oversight, independent oversight and independent control of a system as it is done almost everywhere else in America.”

There is also a question about impact to borrowing rates. Future bonding would be based on the credit of the district, rather than the township, which carries a AAA rating. The district has no credit history. 

Vote Montclair, in a Q&A on its website, says “discussions with several top experts on municipal finance, including at top credit rating agencies, indicate that as in similar towns the school district’s credit rating would closely track that of the township — meaning no meaningful impact on future borrowing for capital projects.”

But Robert Benecke, who serves as a financial adviser to the township, said at the Cummings forum it was “doubtful the new entity [the school district] would have a AAA bond rating.”

“Twenty-nine municipalities in New Jersey out of 565 have a rate of AAA, and about eight or nine self-contained school districts — so there’s no direct link,” he said.

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%.

Montclair Local’s forum will air again on TV34 today, Thursday, Oct. 28 at 11 a.m.; Saturday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 31, at 5:30 p.m. and Monday, Nov. 1, at 10:30 a.m.