Appointed Or Elected, Divisive Issue Sparks Debate

People are talking about it at the bus stop, at cocktail parties, bumping into each other at Bluestone or downtown. It’s an issue people feel strongly about, even if they haven’t taken a side or decided which way to vote. The appointed-vs.elected board debate sparks a lot of opinion. Last Thursday, in a letter to the Montclair Times, Newsweek columnist and Montclair parent Jonathan Alter came out in favor of continuing Montclair’s 60-plus year tradition of an appointed board. In recent days, both sides have sent out press releases, further defining their stance on the issue, and both offer more information on their websites: Appointed Board Coalition and ElectThe Board.
The Appointed Board Coalition asserts that it would be difficult to elect a diverse board, because voter turnout for school board elections is very low — about 12% to 15% of registered voters. Additionally, they assert that since candidates need only 10 signatures to get on the ballot, compared to 275 to run for an at-large seat on the Montclair Town Council, it will attract single-issue candidates.
The Elected Board supporters cite Roger Terry and Renee Baskerville, the newest members in a decades long history of African-Americans elected to council, as evidence that a diverse elected BOE can be achieved (Terry received the most votes of any candidate during the last election). Baskerville had previously lost a seat as an appointed member of the BOE, when Remsen did not reappoint her in 2007, despite a public outcry. Based on her popularity in the recent council election, would she have kept her BOE seat if an elected BOE system was in place?

Mary Beth Rosenthal, a Hillside parent and member of the Appointed Board Coalition, doesn’t know anyone who would be willing to run for the BOE, spend thousands of dollars and expose themselves to everything that happens in a campaign, for a position that doesn’t even pay a small stipend, like the town council does. Five out of the seven current BOE members affirmed Rosenthal’s view, telling the Montclair Times they would not be interested in running for a seat on an elected board. Besides losing the current appointed board members, Rosenthal fears that the appointed vs. elected debate is diverting energy from another issue — the need to push for change in Trenton, so Montclair would get state aid in line with the average of 40% awarded to most communities as opposed to the 10% the town gets currently. “The funding formula will be reviewed this year by the NJ legislature and this is a real opportunity we should be focusing on,” says Rosenthal. “If you have a nationally recognized public school system and your effort is not to cut property taxes, what specific changes are needed and how do you see an elected board helping to accomplish those changes?”
Both sides will also meet in town council chambers in Tuesday, October 20, for a special forum on the issue. We’d like to take your pulse now — and after the 20th — on this issue. Go the web sites and read the arguments. Then, weigh in, letting us know if you are undecided, or if you’ve made a choice. Tell us in comments how you’ll vote — and why.

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  1. Alter wrote in The Montclair Times that Obama supports mayoral control of school boards. Is that true?

  2. I support keeping the appointed school board. Where i grew up (Erie PA), reactionary school boards brought to power in low-turn-out elections during the 70s and 80s did major, lasting damage to the district and the city. It could happen here, especially with our usually-miniscule voter participation.
    And after 11 years in Montclair, I’m skeptical about the intellectual level of most local office seekers. If we want to drop the board’s mean IQ by 30 points, election will probably do it.

  3. i’m leaning against an elected board, mostly (like McPaul) I am less then impressed by the politicians in this town and shudder at the thought of them running the schools.
    However I would favor the BOE (and township!) budget having to be approved by voters.

  4. p.s.
    I think it might be wishful thinking that the activists who end up on an elected BOE will be of the budget-cutting variety. I think it is equally likely there could be parent activists who will favor increased spending.

  5. I don’t get it. Don’t you people see what has happened with our BoE in Bloomfield, you would be hard pressed to find a MORE political group. Some of the individuals may have run for noble reasons, but almost all have a pretty heavy political bend. I don’t see how electing a Board in Montclair will create a more child/tax payer friendly system. In other words be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

  6. TD: But I am still not convinced that an appointed board would be better. Appointed by whom? Sounds too much like cronyism to me, such as seventh grade girls inviting only the most popular kids to their sleepover.

  7. I’m in favor of an automated board, consisting of board-bots written by a computer programmer appointed by the mayor.

  8. In arguing for an appointed board where responsibility rests wihth the mayor, Alter says,If he appoints good people to run the schools and they show progress, he deserves to be reelected.
    In this town, each time the mayor fails, and each time he gets booted out of office. So we’ve been following Alter’s advice for some time now, and it’s not working. His answer is, keep doing the same thing.
    Maybe an elected board will be a disaster, but at least it would be a different disaster.

  9. While both models can work, this is really a referendum on change vs the status quo. This is a tool to bring about change, specifically those changes Montclair residents can directly address versus the more difficult changes at the State level. Fear of change and the unknown will almost assure the elected board will not pass. So, my question is what is Plan B? The problems will still be there November 4th and the Appointed camp is not offering any solutions to the problems we control.

  10. BOE members to Montclair voters:
    DROP DEAD, we wouldn’t listen to you while we were appointed and now we won’t let you vote for or against us. Ours is an exclusive group that we refuse to share with the voting riff-raff.

  11. The Appointed Board Coalition = Nothing more than fear mongering.
    The following is the main headline from their website…This referendum puts our magnet schools, our property values
    and our children at risk.
    Can’t they come up with anything better than this?
    What scares me the most is the concept of leaving things the way they are. This would be nothing more than an affirmation that the status quo is working well. I honestly feel that most supporters of continuing to appoint our BOE truly believe that Montclair schools are very special. This is just plain sad. America #1, I suppose.

  12. ROC,
    “I am less then impressed by the politicians in this town and shudder at the thought of them running the schools.”
    Wake Up! They already do. It’s called being MAYOR.
    One politician giving appointed seats to campaign contributors or personal friends who helped win his/her campaign. Too much power for the Mayor, and Fried’s save all plan to give more appointee power to Council Members only disperses the corruption and back scratching come election time.
    Blaming state funding is a poor talking point when Salaries/Pensions and overall school expenditures rise year after year after year after year after year…………
    I have a question for the BOE in Montclair…
    “What percentage of Municipal budget is to much for the BOE?”
    60,65,70,75,80,90,100% Should we run a budget deficit? Print Municipal IOU’s?
    Using scare tactics like, no one will run because it doesn’t pay and persons may be ridiculed during the campaign is Bull****.
    There is no easy answer, if the BOE is elected, the Scum Leaders of the NJEA, will find a candidate and fill his or her pockets to push there agenda.(more Union Dues) Politics is a bloodsport in NJ, when 10’s of Millions of Dollars are at stake. No matter what happens in the end, money and special interest will get its way!

  13. I forgot to add, it has nothing to do with the students, not once have you heard anyone say they are doing it to change the standard and level of education our Students receive.
    Money and Politics is what is at stake!
    That is the sad part………..

  14. people seem to believe that an appointed board is a reward to cronies. How is a non-paying job a reward?

  15. I’m in favor of an automated board, consisting of board-bots written by a computer programmer appointed by the mayor.
    That’s a great idea, walleroo, but wouldn’t it be more democratic if the programmer were elected by the voters?

  16. Black folks don’t vote so we NEED an appointed board?
    I love this one.
    the prof has not even thought much about it as he simply believes that letting the people vote is always better than not.
    So even if there is a turnout of 1, every resident HAD the chance to vote.
    The problem is that the BOE is unaccountable, so long as the mayor is happy.
    I’d rather they feel the pressure of weighing and listening to the people.
    And all the anti-choice (that’s what a vote is, right), fear-mongering tells me I’m probably right.

  17. I’m in favor of having to vote on the BOE budgets, that seems to be the biggest problem here and the reason everyone wants to have an elected board. If we have an appointed board that’s done with some kind of real nominating committee process and input from people OTHER than the council and a way to vote on budgets then it would seem we’d have the best of both worlds.
    Although I see the point of having an elected board, hoping that this would give the citizens more of a voice, I worry that anyone other than a person with a personal agenda would want to put up with an election process in this town for a job with no pay and lots of agita.

  18. As for the BOE positions being rewards, – I’ve sat on an appointed board and let me tell you, I didn’t exactly look upon it as a reward. Not only are you not paid, it’s a lot of work and time and you will constantly be 2nd guessed by members of the public. But I felt I was doing my part as a citizen and community member – it was certainly not for any rewards or power. There was no sense of cronyism and I’m not aware of any influence being asserted by the mayor or town council members on our board members. (no this was not a BOE, but the situation is similiar enough to draw some comparisons)
    There may certainly be valid reasons to have an elected board, but the members of an appointed board should not be characterized as some power hungry lackies of the mayor. I’m pretty sure they are just hard working individuals who want to help their community.

  19. I agree with gurl too. Except the nominating committee being people “OTHER” than the council? How would the committee be chosen? Election?
    I say have the budget ratified by voters and let the council choose the BOE.
    Since that’s not an option in the current referendum I won’t be voting for the change.
    I really think everyone is underestimating the power of parent activism when the BOE is elected. I think spending is more likely to go UP with an elected board. Maybe not in the first go around (with passions so high) but eventually the parents will have the most to gain by organizing and “controlling” spending.

  20. I agree, ROC, the budget will continue to go up and it’s likely really activist parents will wind up being the ones who get elected to the board. We have to be able to vote on the budget. A nominating committee would not be hard to put together easy – two past council members, two current council members, a parent, a non-parent. Any number of combinations could be worked out.

  21. Legislation is pending in Trenton (passed Assembly, awaiting Senate) that will eliminate the vote, even for elected districts, on any school budget that is within “cap.” The budget would be automatically approved. This legislation is supported by the NJ School Boards Association, 90% of whose members have elected boards and currently vote on the budget. Apparently, budget elections are seen as largely a waste of time and money even by those who hold them.
    BTW, Montclair’s school budgets have been within cap for at least the past few years.

  22. “Apparently, budget elections are seen as largely a waste of time and money even by those who hold them.”
    Actually I think politicians are just sick of their budgets not being passed.

  23. In my town, we vote on both the BOE members & the school budgets. Voting for members has been the usual mixed bag – you get good ones & bad ones. While the budgets usually pass, there was one year when a particularly egregious increase was voted down (I have no idea whether it was “within cap,” which may not have existed as a concept at that time). Surprise, surprise, they were able to come up with a smaller budget.
    Granted, as has been said many times before, much of the budget increase is mandated at the state level, & budget votes address only one facet of a bigger problem.

  24. Montclair’s school system is an employment program first, a baby sitting service second, a detention service for young adults second, and fourth (at best) a test administering service. In Montclair Schools we have lots of drug counselors but not one full time calculus teacher. Alverez should worry about getting kids to take calculus not Chinese.
    Montclair Schools=lots of pay checks, lots of jobs, not much education.

  25. Everyone I know frothing at the mouth about an elected board has spent the past few years currying favor with the Board, sucking up to Frank big time (“Yes Frank, do you want another raise? How much would you like?”) and generally acting like they are part of a private elite ordained by The Almighty to run our schools. It’s like the Board Members of IBM explaining why it would just be simply outrageous to put let the lowly shareholders express their choices. As Robert Klein used to say about Sy Sperling, “he’s not just the President but a member. What would conceivably be his reason to lie to anybody!”

  26. Wally would do well to remember that, even in basic math (forget calculus!), you can’t list 4 items and 2 of them be second.
    \Perhaps Wally didn’t get enough babysitting in the Montclair schools.
    Montclair High School currently offers Trig/Calculus, Calculus I honors, Calculus AB,AP, Calculus BC, AP, and College Calculus III honors.
    So if you want to take calculus at the high school, and you can meet requirements like formulatting a list of 4 items successfully, you can.
    As for the board, I agree that those most likely to run would be those who have pet projects or special agenda items that they’d like to see go forward, despite costs, because it is “needed”.
    That is the way it works now in many, many districts with elected boards.
    i do support voting on the budget, but state law does permit municipalities to push rejected budgets through.
    Maybe the referendum should address THAT issue first.

  27. Well, this thread was kind of interesting for a moment. However, between the apathetic voter camp (the majority), the status quo camp (including the BOSE) and this pending legislation, I think it time to pack up the tent on this issue. We’re guaranteed an annual 4% cap increase plus the usual non-cap add-ons for the foreseeable future.

  28. Res in 5th,
    To give you and others a prospective of what your prediction would look like in dollars: See Below
    4% increase a year “within caps” would get Montclair BOE Budget to 50MM in 5yrs or less. In 2020 it will be the same size as the Total Current 2009 Municipal Budget of roughly 70MM a year………
    That is sickening!

  29. It’s interesting that Liz’s original item above, along with a few other posters, seems to find special meaning in the fact that Jonathan Alter wrote a letter to the Montclair Times in which he stated his support for an appointed board. But why on earth would anyone thus assume that Alter, by virtue of his position at Newsweek, has special expertise re Montclair schools? (As a Newsweek subscriber, I’d suggest quite to the contrary for virtually anyone who writes for that writhing, dying magazine.)
    Certainly, the coming referendum should not be even partially swayed one way or the other by “celebrity” endorsements. That way lies madness. (Although it is amusing to note that Alter chose the Montclair Times in which to take a stand, not Baristanet so far as we know.)
    As for voting on school budgets, it can get tricky, and stretched out almost beyond belief as an actual process. I can recall right off the bat at least three towns in north and central Jersey where it took three such referendums to achieve a budget. That, however, is often the price that comes with the process.
    ROC and some others also express skepticism about the potential quality of elected school board members, or at least about their possible tendency towards perfervidness. In my own experience with elected school board members in sevral Jersey towns, however, my general impression is that they all generally simply share a degree of interest and commitment, are hardly the cranks with special agendas some of the verbiage above conjures up. Really, we are not talking the rabid, vocferous likes of say, Comrade laser”lefty”mikeypal here.

  30. cathar,
    Sadly I don’t think Montclair is quite the same as several Jersey towns. The sense of entitlement and liberal “activism” here are off the charts. I, for one, because of my experience in this town and on these very “pages” think it highly likely we will indeed end up with vociferous cranks on the BOE.

  31. Livingston is probably just as liberal as Montclair, ROC, but far uglier to look at.
    Nevertheless, you might enjoy viewing the new town hall under construction. that is, if you need further evidence of wasteful government spending. It looks like 3 brick Hummers with erections parked in a row, with a phony baloney greek pediment over the middle.

  32. I’ve worked with a great many school districts over many years, both here in Nj and in other states.
    And sad to say, those who were NOT cranks and/or with special agendas were the exception rather than the rule.
    Would it be any better with elected versus appointed? I don’t know. But I do know that what Montclair is doing now does not seem to be meeting with approval from most residents.

  33. croiagusanam, you’re right of course, but the primary reason the current situation is not meeting with approval from most of the town is the boe budget and the fact that it has increased significantly over the past two years and that it is rubber stamped by the bose.

  34. Newsweek? Is that still around? Why would anyone spend good advertising dollars putting an ad in that magazine? What niche does it serve (dentist’s waiting room)? When will the last regular buyer of the paper edition of general purpose news magazines die? Or has he (she) already? The photo developing store on the corner of Park and Bloomfield is gone too.
    Things change. We need a school board willing to take on the NJEA, tenure and merit pay and put education back in Montclair’s school system. Now we just spend money, lots of money, on a jobs program/baby sitting service/detention center.

  35. ROC,
    “Sadly I don’t think Montclair is quite the same as several Jersey towns.”
    In my opinion there is no town anywhere near what Montclair is or represents. Spiro, Livingston, it has under 15,000 Residents. Regardless what you guys think of Politics in Montclair, it has close to 40,000 Residents. Getting 10-15% is around 10K people.
    Someone find a town in NJ that has over 30K Residents, has better schools, proximity to NYC(or Major Metropolitan area), less crime, lower taxes.
    Lets not forget the Food and Culture….

  36. Being coy Kyle? People embark on pilgrimages from miles around to eat at any of the high end BYOB Montclair restaurants. We are the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, the River Ganges and the Wailing Wall of the sensual world, at least in Essex County, NJ.
    Then, after the tastebuds are happy, the brain is a-buzzin’ and the belly is full, the pilgrims migrate back to their miserable car based suburban homes laden with granite countertops and two story foyers, turn out the lights, and have fantasies about their spouses’ best friends.

  37. Then it’s kind of a cheap televangelist type food religion, the food around here is “B+” at best.

  38. I disagree, ROC, notable grouch. I think the food is excellent in much of Montclair. You might prefer the Wasilla Grille, and Lord knows they could use a few extra patrons.

    is not a reason to keep an appointed board. If anything, the fact that the mayor was elected by only about 11.25% of the township’s registered voters exacerbates low voter turnout — one person chosen by so few gets to pick the whole school board. With an elected board, a variety of folks stand a chance (much like our current diverse council).
    makes no sense as a reason to keep an appointed board. Like it or not, the BOE wields significant political power, yet it does not operate under the oversight of any democratic process. The BOE is political, but it is arbitrarily so.
    is not a supportable premise for keeping an appointed board. Seriously, look at the list of districts in the state with appointed boards, then look at the list with elected boards. There is nothing to indicate that appointed boards lead to things being somehow better.
    Yes, we’re nuts. So why funnel all that nuttiness through just one person, the mayor, so he can appoint unelected, unaccountable board members? Spreading the nuttiness around a bit certainly can’t be worse.
    This is the one good reason to keep the elected board — we should listen to the respected, long-standing, anti-voting organization that grew out of the noble struggle of women to avoid voting and shirk civic participation … oh, wait, what?? WTF??? I remain boggled by this. It just blows my mind!! What the hell? AAAAAAGH! The League of Women WHAT? Can’t be “Voters“?!! Can’t be. Can it?

  40. me thing bord peeple no shud be in skool anyway an skool no good cause it soshulest commie stuff. skool shud be privitised an close down goverment. obama born in jamaka or somthing aneeway so him shud do wat lobbiest say no kwestons askd. no tax good so get cristy for goverment no corsiene him have commie beerd an is pinko comie soshulest

  41. It’s so delicious that the obotomized blue staters who dominate Montclair are all fearfully nimbying change.

  42. mv07042,
    I give you my permission to lift any of my posts on this topic for use on your website on the condition that I be identified either as “anonymous internet blowhard” or “local bigmouth, appletony” (I want to keep the few wisps of cloaking that remain).
    Please note that the post above needs correction: the first line under the League of Women Voters segment needs the word “keep” replaced with “reject” to work correctly.

  43. I love your comments,
    But the myth that there are no politics with the appointed BOE, how about when remsen did not reappoint Baskerville and disfranchised the 4th Ward, that was pure politics at its worst.
    The appointed BOE folks don’t realize that they are one anit-tax mayor away from losing the magnet school system and there will be nothing they can do about it

  44. I also am in favor of an appointed board for a simple reason: Having the inclination and the skills to run for elected office is very different from what you need to be an effective school board member. Ideally, board members should each bring a specific “skill set” to the board and those different skills would add various dimensions. Someone who is, say, an expert in early childhood education or municipal finance may be totally turned off by the idea of having to raise money, do meet-and-greets, suck up to constituents and so on. Yet they may be perfectly willing to serve if called upon.
    That said, there sure is a problem with accountability on our school board. I’ve been stunned (scared actually!) by how unqualified so many of the board members I’ve met over the years have been. What’s more, many seem to be more committed to their personal politics than to the will of the general community. Their behavior this year on raises for school administrators (as well as for teachers) was a real indication of how out of touch they are.
    There’s got to be a better way than what we’ve got, but I don’t think a low-turnout local election of candidates with larger poitical aspirations is the way to go.

  45. MontclairMom,
    Your post is thoughtful, but it presumes that people running for school board would be those with larger political aspirations. What makes you think that people who get appointed by a low-voter-numbers mayor won’t have such aspirations?
    You also start by indicating that special expertise would be helpful to being on the board, then in the very next paragraph you detail how “stunned (scared actually!)” you have been by the lack of qualifications that so many [appointed] board members have had through the years. Your own second paragraph sums up great reasons to try an elected board! You even point out how political the appointed board has been. Please, re-read that paragraph and don’t buy into the appointed board fearmongering.
    An elected board will not bring some kind of idyllic status to the school system, but it’s worth trying in the search for some accountability and varied candidates chosen by the people.
    There are plenty of good people who would consider serving via election. The fact five out of seven members of the existing board claim that they wouldn’t run is itself a clarion call to all those who seek the accountability that you found lacking during last year’s budget process. Asbestos in Renaissance was another area where citizens felt stonewalled. So, when current board members say they won’t run, maybe the proper response is to ask, “is that a promise?”
    It certainly doesn’t seem to be a threat…

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