Vote tallies are seen from Montclair’s District 1-6 on Election night (COUNCILMAN BOB RUSSO)

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

Montclair voters have approved a move to an elected school board — putting aside the municipality’s long-held practice of mayoral appointments and taking on the process seen in 97% of New Jersey school districts.

The referendum question before voters Tuesday (and in the weeks leading up to it, through early voting and mail-in balloting) was the latest version of a proposal Montclairians rejected five times since the 1960s. 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%.

The vote this election bucked that trend — and wasn’t close. Even with some votes yet to be counted, the victory for the pro-elected side of what’s been a fierce community debate for months was so lopsided as to be insurmountable.

In unofficial results reported by the Essex County Clerk’s office around 11:30 p.m. on Election Night, 8,187 backed the change to a Type II school system with an elected board — 70.69% of the vote tallied to that point. Just 3,394 voted to keep the current Type I system with a mayor-appointed board.

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“This election was about the basics of local democracy and public services, about residents in our township enjoying the same voting rights as in other communities, and then using these rights to ensure that our most precious residents — our children — are given the best public education possible,” Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put the referendum question on the ballot, said in a statement posted to its website late Tuesday.

The results as of 11:30 p.m. Tuesday included 31 of the township’s 35 voting districts and remained the most recent available early Wednesday. They didn’t count provisional ballots, which wouldn’t be tallied for days. They do include early votes and mail-in ballots received and counted by Essex County up until that point.

As of Monday, the Essex County Clerk’s office had received 2,915 of 5,982 requested mail-in ballots from township residents. 

The measure does more than just change the method of selecting school board members. Two more members will be added to the current seven-member board, through a special election early next year. Going forward, board elections will be held every November, for three seats at a time.

Montclair will cease to be a so-called Type I district, which in addition to having a mayor-appointed board has a separate Board of School Estimate to approve budgets and fix costs for capital expenses before they’re sent to the Township Council for bonding. The BoSE will be dissolved. The change will be effective as soon as the vote is certified.

As a Type II district — the kind seen in most New Jersey municipalities — the school system’s budgets will generally be approved by the school board itself. If they exceed a 2% cap on year-to-year property tax levy growth, they’ll go to voters for approval. Capital improvement bonds will go before the public as well, either in regularly scheduled or special elections.

Vote Montclair, in its statement, acknowledged the race had often been “bitter,” but applauded the “enormous contribution of many of those who opposed this referendum, who in some cases fought for years for the cause of educational equity, often at no small personal cost.”

Carmel Loughman, communications chair for the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, which supported continuing with the Type I, mayor-appointed system, said the group was glad to see a “decent turnout for the election.” Proponents of both sides got their points across in forums, letters to the editor and newspaper guest columns, she said.

“Of course we are disappointed our position was voted down,” Loughman said. “We hope that all the excitement and energy spent on the campaigns will be devoted to addressing school issues.” She said the League would be happy to run school board forums once races start.

Proponents of the current system had argued a mayor can thoughtfully select board members based on background and experience, and they would better represent Montclair than board members elected in low-turnout school elections. 

They said elections invite electioneering, with the potential for monied special interests to dominate campaigns, and worried elected candidates might be more inclined to answer to tax-sensitive voters, jeopardizing school construction projects and the busing that makes Montclair’s magnet school system workable.

Proponents of the elected system argued it’s a matter of democratic representation. They’ve said it’s easier to avoid the influence of special interests in nine elections for board members over three years than in a single election for mayor once every four years, pointing to the example of Mayor Sean Spiller, now president of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, who saw substantial financial support from the union during his 2020 campaign (when he was the NJEA’s vice president). 

And they’ve said issues including years of infrastructure problems, a rapid succession of six superintendents since 2012 and delayed or deferred spending on capital improvements prove the current system wasn’t working.

The debate saw little consensus among elected officials or community groups. For instance, the Montclair NAACP chapter declined to take a position on the matter, even as its own education committee endorsed a move to an elected board. Roger Terry, the chapter’s president, said late Tuesday the Montclair branch “supports our entire community and whatever is in the best interest of our most precious commodity, our children.”

Diane Anglin — the chair of the education committee, who represented it at a recent Montclair Local forum on the issue — said she couldn’t speak for the group on the results until it next meets. But “from me personally, I am happy to see Montclair moving in a direction where there is opportunity for good ole regular folks to ‘put their hat in the ring.'”

“I hope those that were for the appointed board will work on finding ways to make this process work (town hall meetings, support candidates, voter education, etc.),” she said by email. And she clarified: She’s not interested in running for a Board of Education seat herself.

On the pages of Montclair Local’s opinion section, Councilman Peter Yacobellis argued for an elected board, while Councilman David Cummings and Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams (who both additionally serve on the Board of School Estimate) argued to keep the current system. Councilman Bob Russo — a former mayor who said recently he favored an appointed board, but thought proponents of an elected one had made points worth considering — told Montclair Local he congratulates those who supported the winning referendum question, and hopes they’ll work together with officials to implement the new system. 

Price Abrams and Yacobellis, in separate statements late Tuesday, each stressed looking ahead. Price Abrams said all those involved in the debate over the referendum “share a commitment to excellence in education through curriculum, enrichment opportunities and buildings which facilitate learning for every kind of student.” Yacobellis said he hopes “all of this passion turns into people having sustained participation because that’s what it’s going to take to truly change things.”

Spiller has not yet returned messages left late Tuesday and early Wednesday. He’s previously declined to put forth a position on an appointed or elected board — saying he trusted voters to decide the matter.

Where that leaves HVAC upgrades

The change also upends a process in recent months to bond for $15.5 million in districtwide HVAC repairs, and eventually much more. Delays to that initiative, proponents of an elected system said, had been only the latest demonstration that an appointed board and BoSE aren’t more likely to support big projects.

School leaders see a proposed HVAC project as the most urgently needed work at the district’s aging facilities, where they’re struggling to address issues including parents’ and staff members’ coronavirus safety concerns. But it only represents a portion of their total recent request of the Board of School Estimate and Township Council.

On Aug. 16, the school board sent the BoSE a formal request for $60 million in bonding. Then, when the BoSE met Sept. 30, school leaders outlined about $150 million in requested bonding, to be spread out over years — with the $15.5 million HVAC work up first.

School officials had proposed the extensive projects hoping to get ahead of the election and the possible district type change. But the clock ran out, with no project approved by the BoSE or ever sent to the Township Council.

Now, for the HVAC project to move forward, the school district would have to schedule a special election — at its own expense. Any borrowing rates will be based on an assessment of its own credit, not that of the township, which has a AAA bond rating.

Yacobellis, who had been those advocating for an attempt to get the project approved before the election, in his statement Tuesday urged the board “to consider what level of investment is needed in the short term and begin the process of putting a bond to the voters as soon as possible.”

Angry residents called into a recent Township Council meeting accusing Deputy Mayor Hurlock, who chairs the BoSE, and its other members of stalling — which he denied, saying school officials had been slow to communicate and unclear in plans they sent, causing unnecessary delays.

Hurlock told Montclair Local Tuesday he was still waiting to hear back from district officials to schedule a next meeting on the HVAC work. He’d received a request for a BoSE meeting from the district’s business administrator, Nicholas Cipriano, the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 22, he said. On Monday, Oct. 25, Hurlock responded to the request with an offer for a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 4 — in the event Montclair remained a Type I district, and the BoSE still had a role to play — he said. A meeting on Oct. 25 would not have provided time for proper notice to the public, and board members were not all available the rest of the week, Hurlock said.

Hurlock has not yet returned messages left late Tuesday and early Wednesday seeking further comment on the election results.

School district offices were closed Tuesday because of the election. Schools superintendent Jonathan Ponds has not yet responded to questions sent to his district email about the bond timeline since Oct. 18.