Residents vote in a polling station at Buzz Aldrin Middle School on Election Day 2021 (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair school district’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic and years of infrastructure issues. Mayor Sean Spiller’s role as a union leader. Changing demographics. 

They’re all among the reasons some Montclair activists and community leaders say voters this Election Day overwhelmingly supported the move to a Type II school district, with an elected school board — and abandoned the system of mayoral appointments that has long set Montclair apart from most New Jersey communities. 

And as the board moves forward with elections — as well as with a system that requires capital improvement bonds to be approved by voters in referendums — they say its new structure will be tested.

“As one of the most progressive towns in the United States, I would have been surprised if voters had not chosen to elect their school representatives,” Cary Chevat said. Though Chevat is both secretary of the Montclair Chapter of the NAACP and of the Montclair Democrats, he said he wasn’t speaking on behalf of those groups — his statements reflected his personal opinions. “To many voters, the election gave voice to the anger and frustration at the district over COVID-19 and management issues.”

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About 71% of voters approved the change from a Type I district to the Type II system used by about 97% of New Jersey communities, according to the latest unofficial tallies by the Essex County Clerk’s office.

Once the election is certified, the change will go into effect immediately. Two positions will be added to the board, to be filled in elections that haven’t yet been scheduled. Each November, three board seats will be up for election to three-year terms. 

The Board of School Estimate — which approves school district budgets and fixes costs for capital improvements before sending them to the Township Council for bonding — will be dissolved. Voters instead will approve or reject bonding for large projects in regular or special elections. That makes the Aug. 16 vote the school board took to request $60 million worth of work (later presenting the BoSE with a longer-term plan for $150 million spread over years, and prioritizing $15.5 million for urgent HVAC projects) moot. 

‘Issue of the day’

This is the sixth time there has been a referendum asking Montclair voters if they want to become a Type II system — previous referendums occurred in 1963, 1969, 1971, 1995 and 2009, according to Ballotpedia

“Every time this referendum has come up, there’s been some kind of profound issue of the day, whether it was segregation, busing, charter schools or tax hikes,” Carmel Loughman, communications committee chair for the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, said.

Loughman said her comments, too, reflected her personal opinions, and not those of the League of Women Voters, which opposed the change to a type II system.

This time around the main issues were COVID-19 and Spiller’s union ties, Loughman said. 

Montclair schools struggled to reopen for hybrid learning last school year, despite heavy pressure from some parents worried remote learning was harming their students academically and socially. The district faced off with the Montclair Education Association when the union’s members refused to return for hybrid learning over safety concerns in January, a matter that wasn’t resolved until after the district sued the union, delaying the return by months. Then, even when schools reopened for full-time learning in the fall, the district faced criticism from some parents upset over what they said was an inadequate plan for testing, inadequate mitigation of ventilation problems in aging schools and communication they found lacking or absent.

Spiller, the mayor, is also president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teacher’s union — and until the referendum, was responsible for appointing board members, having selected four of the seven members currently in place.

Members of Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put the referendum about a district change on the ballot, argued special interests need only to target the mayor’s seat to have influence over Montclair schools — and pointed to the substantial backing Spiller saw from the union in his 2020 campaign as proof. It would be much harder to sway elections for nine seats over three years, they said. 

Spiller has not yet responded to multiple emails sent to his municipal address since Nov. 7 with questions about the election outcome. 

“People were uncomfortable with so much power resting in the hands of one person,” Vote Montclair treasurer Clifford M. Kulwin said. “The mayor can appoint (or fail to reappoint) anyone she or he chooses to the BOE. Period. Entirely the call of one person.”

‘Immobilization’

Martin Schwartz, a former Planning Board member, cited another reason for the referendum’s success — frustration over what he called the “ongoing immobilization and finger-pointing tax-hike avoidance dance of the council, BoSE and BOE appointees” when it comes to approving large projects. While many proponents of an appointed board system argued the BOE, BoSE and council can effectively advance capital improvements that tax-sensitive voters might otherwise reject at referendums, many proponents of the elected system countered that the current system has already let big projects languish.

The vote effectively fired the council from its position of Board of Education oversight, Schwartz said. 

Board of Education officials in early July declined to advance a large project to fix up schools’ infrastructure, saying they were told by the BoSE there wouldn’t be enough time before the election might change the bonding process — as it ultimately did. In August, they reconsidered, formally asking the BoSE to consider $60 million worth of work. But the BoSE met only once since then, saying members weren’t clear what the district was asking for. And the clock ran out, with BOE and BoSE members each at times saying they were waiting on the other body for next steps. 

“Our appointed board members here have simply been unable to push the councils of late to get off their fiscal dime and take care of the schools,” Schwartz said. “In addition to the mayor no longer appointing school board members, the entire council’s BOE budgetary oversight powers were just taken away — to be given now to other future elected representatives.” 

‘A changing Montclair’

Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings, who had supported keeping an appointed board, said the election outcome reflects a changing Montclair — one that looks and feels different than in the years when past referendums were held. Cummings wrote in favor of an appointed board in an Oct. 26 letter to Montclair Local

“I think at the end of the day, it truly reflects the changing demographics in the township,” Cummings said. “What Montclair has, it’s beyond gentrification. There is a different community now and that community spoke.”

With capital improvement bonds going to voters for approval, Cummings said he is not sure how voters will feel about large projects hiking up their taxes. For residents on fixed incomes and for those without kids in the school system, paying a few hundred dollars extra each year may not seem worth it, he said. 

Cummings, a former Board of Education member, was also appointed to the BoSE in September.

Gentrification, high property taxes and an increase in property values are changing the fabric of Montclair, Chevat said. In the next few years, downtown Montclair will resemble Jersey City, he said. 

The Montclair we celebrate as a diverse and progressive town is in the process of dramatically changing,” Chevat said. “Montclair is becoming more affluent and less diverse.”

Who will run?

The issue of diversity is one that Cummings thinks will reemerge during elections for board members.

“I don’t think you’ll get the same kind of individuals who are willing to volunteer for a role that requires a lot of time,” Cummings said. “You’ll get people who are more or less interested in taking on a political position.”

Chevat asked: Finding candidates willing to make the financial and time commitments to run for Township Council is difficult, so what will make the school board any different?

In past Montclair Township Council elections, many seats only had two candidates running for a spot. In 2020, Cummings ran unopposed in the Fourth Ward. 

But Montclair Republican Club president John Van Wagner said finding candidates for the school board will not be hard to do in Montclair. Van Wagner wrote in favor of an elected board in an Oct. 22 letter to Montclair Local

“Montclair is chock-full not only of extremely intelligent, intuitive, creative people, but also we’re a community of extremely engaged parents,” Van Wagner said. “We need board members who are looking after the interests of parents and children, and not the teacher unions and their contracts.”

Eager candidates will appear this year and maybe next year, but five years down the road, it will be a different situation, Loughman said. 

“It’ll be the same old complacency,” Loughman said. “I don’t know why it would be any different than any other town.” 

Councilman Peter Yacobellis said in a Nov. 3 letter to the community he hopes the passion around the referendum vote will turn into sustained civic participation. Yacobellis wrote in favor of an elected board in an Oct. 7 letter to Montclair Local

“That’s what it’s going to take to truly change things,” Yacobellis wrote. “We are going to need civic organizations more than ever to help keep the voters engaged and informed as we transition to an elected school district in the years ahead and particularly as we consider who we will elect to those seats.”

Over the next few years, the board will transform under its new classification as Type II, introducing bond referendums, gaining members and holding yearly elections. The process will be “a couple years of chaos,” Cummings said, with serious implications for schools. 

The transition will take some time, and divisiveness will not automatically disappear, Vote Montclair founder Erik D’Amato said during an Oct. 28 symposium hosted by Montclair High School’s Civics and Government Institute. 

“One thing I keep having to remind myself is that the shift from Type I district to Type II doesn’t just change the way members of the BOE are selected, it gives the Montclair Public Schools an entirely new status separate from township government,” D’Amato told Montclair Local. “We need to start thinking of the BOE as a fully independent and separate layer of government, like the township, county or state governments, and respect it as such.”

Deputy Mayor and former BoSE chairman Bill Hurlock has not yet responded to multiple emails sent to his municipal address since Nov. 7 with questions about the election outcome.