The polling location at the Montclair municipal building is seen during the November election. A petition would have Montclair voters decide whether, going forward, to have an elected school board. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

Today is Election Day — when voters statewide will pick a governor, and Montclair voters will additionally weigh in on choices for both the 34th state Legislative District and the Essex County Sheriff’s seat.

They’ll also vote to help decide in two statewide ballot initiatives whether betting should be allowed on college sport competitions, and whether more types of organizations should be able to use raffle proceeds to raise money for themselves.

But most anticipation in Montclair is around the third question on township residents’ ballots. That asks if the township’s school district should cease to be a Type I system, with a mayor-appointed school board, or a Type II system, with an elected board. The latter is far more common — about 97% of New Jersey districts are Type II.

As of Monday, the Essex County Clerk’s office had received 2,915 of 5,982 requested mail-in ballots — a return rate so far of just under 49% — according to a database readout the clerk provided to Montclair Local.

Of those requested, 4,555 were by Democrats, 232 by Republicans and 1,183 by unaffiliated voters. The remainder were from voters registered with smaller parties.

And of those returned, 2,351 were by Democrats, 99 by Republicans and 462 by unaffiliated voters.

In all, 10,946 ballots were cast in last year’s May municipal elections. Voter turnout can vary significantly each year, depending on the races on the ballot.

This year, New Jersey allowed early voting; that concluded Sunday. But mail-in ballots can still be returned. They must be postmarked on or before today, Nov. 2 (Election Day) and must be received by the Essex Board of Elections on or before Nov. 8.

Mail-in ballots can be returned to the Election Office in person, at 495 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. in Newark, in the Dr. Martin Justice Building Room, until 8 p.m.

They can also be returned in any of several secure drop boxes located throughout the county until 8 p.m. on Nov. 2. In Montclair, there are drop boxes at the municipal building at 205 Claremont Ave., and at Montclair State University at 1 Normal Ave. (on College Avenue, in Lot No. 8).

In-person polling locations are listed on the township’s website, montclairnjusa.org. Select “Government,” “Municipal Clerk” and “Elections.” The township also has an interactive map of polling locations linked from its site, and they’re listed at the New Jersey Division of Elections website at nj.gov/state/elections as well. Contact the municipal clerk’s office for polling location questions at 973-509-4900.

Elected vs. appointed board

Montclair has put five referendum questions on proposed changes to a Type I district 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%.

A move to Type II would take place immediately, if voters choose it. It would also expand the school board from seven to nine members, and disband the separate Board of School Estimate, which approves school budgets, and which fixes costs for capital improvements before sending them to the Township Council for bonding. In a Type II system, budgets would typically be approved by the school board, but would be sent to voters if they exceed a 2% cap on yearly property levy growth. Capital improvement bonds would go to referendums.

Proponents of the appointed system argue it helps protect school spending, and is more likely to preserve the district’s long-cherished magnet system and busing. They say because turnout for school elections is often low, a mayor-appointed system can be more representative of the township, and that a mayor can thoughtfully selected members representing a variety of backgrounds and skills. And they say elections would invite electioneering — with big-money campaigns inviting in special interests and excluding would-be board members who can’t afford to compete.

Proponents of the elected system point to controversies in the district over the last several years, including a succession of six superintendents since 2012 and several major infrastructure issues, as evidence the current system isn’t working. They say the significant backing Mayor Sean Spiller received from his employer, the New Jersey Education Association (of which the mayor was vice president during the 2020 campaign, and is now president) already demonstrates special interests can influence Montclair by targeting just a single seat. And they argue nine board elections — three every year — would be much harder for outside funders to influence. Since board elections would be held in November, when most other elections are held, turnout might be higher than during Montclair’s May municipal elections, they say.

Montclair Local hosted a virtual panel discussion on this topic Thursday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m.

Montclair Local voting guide for 2021

— Louis C. Hochman

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