UPDATE: Scroll to the end of this story for Mayor Jerry Fried’s statement on why a specially-scheduled public meeting is a bad idea.
In July, activist Pegi Adams of MontclairWatch lead a campaign to put a question on the November ballot asking voters if they want an elected school board, rather than an appointed one, in Montclair. She’s collected more than enough signatures, but there’s a big problem. Those signatures are spread between two different petitions, with slightly different wording. Neither petition has enough signatures on its own, and town clerk Linda Wanat doesn’t know whether it should be sent to the county clerk for inclusion on the Nov. 3 ballot.
There’s a relatively easy fix. The town council can put the issue on the ballot with a simple resolution. Councilors Cary Africk, Rich Murnick and Renee Baskerville are working to find a date for a special meeting — possibly as early as next week — to consider such a resolution. While not showing his hand on the underlying issue of whether there should be an elected school board, Africk is adamant that the matter should go to the voters.
“Similarities with Florida and the hanging chads come to mind,” Africk says. “The question should be put in front of the people.”
Africk says the council is still hoping there’ll be a legal decision on the two petitions. Township attorney Alan Trembulak is expected to issue an opinion within a day, but that might not be enough. “We would like a judge to help us,” Africk says.
I expect that a determination will be made quickly about the legality of the petitions that have been submitted concerning changing from an appointed to an elected Board of Education. When asked about this on Wednesday morning by a Montclair Times reporter, I qualified my response by saying that it is important that the legal process for validating the petitions be followed. I’m writing to explain my position further.
The issue of appointed vs. elected school Boards is vitally important and the closest analog we have is the process of changing our form of government from the “commissioner form” to the “Council/Manager form” in 1979. A Charter Study Commission, which deliberated over the course of an entire year, produced a detailed report on the pros and cons of a change and finally recommended that the question be placed on the ballot.
Our form of government allows the public to put the question of “elected vs. appointed” on the ballot via a petition process. Because of the shockingly low turnout for municipal elections, only 911 signatures out of the 37,000 residents are required. If a judge rules the petitions are valid, it WILL BE on the ballot.
This will leave less than two months for Montclair residents to be fully informed. In my opinion, this a fraction of the time that this important question demands. We must hear experts in education, learn of other communities’ experience, see comparative data and, most importantly, carefully assess what effect this change will have on our children. It is not a simple choice. For that reason, I DO NOT support the idea of the Council convening an emergency meeting to “validate” the petitions ourselves and put the question on the ballot.
If we as a Council were to vote on any other issue of this magnitude, we would certainly plan public hearings, meetings and debates. Many of us ran on “transparency”. The idea of convening a special meeting, not announcing it until the day before people go away for Labor Day weekend, and having it scheduled for the night before school starts… this is simply absurd. “Who will hear about this meeting? Will all the stakeholders be there? Experts and innovators in education? Community icons who created our magnet schools? Will we talk about the option of a HYBRID system, as they have in South Orange? Who might comprise our new Board of Ed.? What it will mean to have candidates on the ballot who only need ten signatures to get on? Will we will end up with a Board that reflects the diversity of our community?
The last time this issue was brought before the voters, over 2800 residents signed the petitions. There’s no question that many residents are concerned about the issue today. If the petitions are validated or the legal number of signatures is reached by the deadline, it’ll be on the ballot and those who want a vigorous debate will mobilize and do the best we can in the little time that remains before election day. If the petitions are not validated, I will commit myself to using the next year to enter into an extensive public debate to explore this before having the Council vote.
I feel strongly that we, your elected officials, owe it to Montclair residents to explore this issue thoroughly and systematically and not rush to insert ourselves into this process.