Montclair PTA Council hosted a virtual Montclair Mayoral Candidate Education Forum on Zoom Monday night, with more than 300 attendees (organizers state that 347 of the 420 registered people attended the event) logged in to hear what the two candidates running for Montclair mayor had to say about education issues — culture, finances and appointments to the Board of Education.
Jon Fortt, of CNBC’s Squawk Alley and a Montclair parent, asked the candidates, Dr. Renee Baskerville and Sean Spiller, the same questions regarding education, except for the last question of the night which he modified for each candidate.
Fortt framed the discussion by explaining how different Montclair is from most other New Jersey towns with regards to its Board of Education:
In 97% of districts in the state, Board of Education members are elected by popular vote and bond issues for major capital projects like school construction and renovation must also come up for a vote, or referendum. Montclair is one of the 3% of so-called Type One districts where the mayor both appoints Board of Education members and sits on a separate board, the Board of School Estimate (BOSE), that approves school budgets and recommends bond issues to the municipality on behalf of the district. That means the Montclair mayor has an outsized amount of indirect soft power over the schools through annual three-year appointments and reappointments to the Board of Education; and other organizations through budget approval on the BOSE; and through influence over long-term capital expenditures.
Fortt, in his first question to the candidates, shared that the PTA Council, who see their role as collaborating with the superintendent and the Board of Education (BOE), have felt, in the last few years, that their efforts have been hindered by infighting on the board, turnover in the superintendent’s office and on the BOE, and often a hostile relationship between the teacher’s union and the board. The mayor has the power to influence the tone of communications between those stakeholders, said Fortt, but also the obligation to respect their independence.
He then asked the candidates: How will you balance that influence and obligation?
“As mayor, I certainly will try to be present as much as possible throughout the year,” said Dr. Baskerville. “Having been vice president of the Board of Education and having served on the Board of School Estimates and been very active with the PTA council in the schools for a long time as well as the community, I’ve already forged many relationships that I think will be helpful.”
Dr. Baskerville also questioned the perception of conflict between the Montclair Education Association (MEA) and the Board of Education.
“I’m not sure that what people perceive is a situation between MEA and the Board of Education was necessarily just between the MEA and the Board of Education. The past few years we’ve had a lot of things that were not consistent and in place starting with the superintendent. And then we’ve had some changes in the Board of Education members and it’s been very difficult for all of us. It’s been difficult for the board members, for the administrators, for the teachers, and for all of the parties that are involved.”
“And so when people are really uncertain about policies and who’s upholding the policies or even implementing policies put into place by a former superintendent, if things aren’t as transparent as they could be, all of those things add to giving an appearance of something that may not be. So I don’t want to work on the premise that there’s anything necessarily between the Board of Education and the MEA. Certainly we’ve all seen videos that appeared to be less than cordial and conversations that we may not understand. But I think we need to start first by understanding what’s underneath all of that. And I’d come in and number one, would be to make sure that we get a superintendent in place and that we’re clear about what the values are, what direction that superintendent wants to go, because that’s going to lay the foundation for everything that follows, where the budget goes and the money and thereafter.”
Baskerville also said that unlike Mayor Robert Jackson, she would utilize a community board that would help her to select members for the Board of Education.
Spiller answered Fortt’s question by stating that it starts with a common place of understanding.
“Each and every one of us, when we’re talking about our educators and we’re talking about our students, we’re talking about parents as part of the PTA, a superintendent, board members, community at large…every single one of us wants the very best education for our kids and that’s why we all do this. Our board members are volunteers who sit there through long meetings and with long hours. Our PTA members who get involved and engaged, try to coordinate with teachers to do what they do and our students put in so many hours and of course our educators. And I think sometimes we get caught up in talking about the things that divide us as opposed to what brings us together.”
“When I look at the current board, we’ve certainly seen in recent years there is a divisiveness and to be very honest, I think that when you look at what’s happened on the board, there have been many split decision votes, votes that occurred by one margin in one direction or one margin, another direction. And probably a little bit of that has been a vision that maybe individuals on the board didn’t all align. I think first and foremost, my role, my obligation as mayor, is to get a number of individuals on the board who at least have a vision in terms of what they’re trying to put forward, what they’re trying to do,” Spiller, said, continuing.
“I think it’s gotten us off track from where we really need to focus, which is looking at the great things that are happening in our schools, supporting those pieces, but also looking at where is it that our students need help? Where is it that our educators could use a little bit more? How can we make sure we’re supporting those needs as they arise? And you can’t focus on that if you have that type of division.”
Spiller also spoke of the turnover at the superintendent level.
“When you see individuals coming and going, that matters. It has an effect when you’re talking about capital projects that we’re trying to do in our schools, but also longterm vision and goals of a superintendent and, and then as a district, and as a whole. I can certainly say that as educator myself, when you have staff who constantly are getting a new administrator in, certainly as a new superintendent with guidance that’s pushing and pulling you in different directions every year or every couple of years, it’s hard to understand what the latest thing is going to be. You need a little bit of that consistency and continuity. I think the mayor has a role and an obligation to put forward people on the board who are going to have a shared vision, a shared goal, absolutely can disagree on issues here and there, but understand the driving focus of our students,” Spiller said.
Fortt then asked Spiller how he would use the mayor’s powers of Board of Education appointments, budget approval, and community influence to address the achievement gap in Montclair.
“We know that there are a lot of factors when you look at achievement and I’ll call it opportunity gaps that also exists. There are a lot of factors that are at play. Some of them are more broad. When we talk about a society’s obligation to really meet the needs of all of our residents, that plays a factor,” says Spiller. “I think what often gets overlooked is the fact that we need to involve students in this conversation. I could not be more thrilled with the restorative justice work that is going on right now in our schools. I know currently the Mayor Jackson, Councilman Hurlock and myself and a number of us participated in some of those programs. What’s really inspiring about [restorative justice] is it really engages the students at the first level of this.”
Spiller said that there also needs to be conversations about institutional racism.
“There are longstanding components built into the system that sometimes we don’t even recognize that hold some students back and favor others. So we’ve got to look at all of that. We’re not going to be able to meet these challenges unless we are talking about the issue first, involving the students, involving the educators. Restorative justice — it’s not a program, it’s a culture change. We need to make sure we keep assessing what’s going on, what’s working, and how do we keep supporting the needs of our students, all our students, until we see gaps, whether it be achievement gaps or opportunity gaps, that are closed and we meet all the students’ needs.”
Dr. Baskerville also lauded the Restorative Justice program as a tool to tackle the achievement gap.
“I happen to be on the board of that program. I think the program is wonderful because it prepares all of us to, better deal with different people from different backgrounds, different races, religions, and it helps us to understand each other and it also helps us to communicate in the most appropriate ways. The six Rs for restorative justice includes such things as respect or remind, rededication, reflect, refer and repair,” Dr. Baskerville said.
“We need to also make sure that every board member that’s coming into the district goes through a process called Undoing Racism,” she added. Dr. Baskerville also said she wanted to revisit what the district can do to bring back Universal Pre-K.
Both Spiller and Baskerville responded to questions about PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreements and both spoke favorably about how the township had used these agreements to bring more dollars into the township. Spiller added that because the township pays for the school’s debt and expenses, he did not see these agreements as taking dollars away from schools. Baskerville said decisions related to these agreements were made to reduce the amount of children coming into the district and that the added dollars were utilized for the good of the entire community.
Fortt first prefaced his last question by stating that the mayor of Montclair has a rare high level of influence over the schools through the power of appointing Board of Education members and being on the Board of School Estimate and even more notably, the next mayor might be in the unusual position of having an opportunity to make two Board of Education appointments, as there is now a vacancy that the outgoing mayor has not filled.
Fortt then asked Spiller: “You are an official with a fiduciary duty to pursue the union’s [NJEA] goals and your campaign has been majority funded by people and their organizations connected to the New Jersey Education Association. The mayor must make decisions that could adversely impact the teacher’s union. You fought this question in court in the past and lost — a judge ruled that while you have been above board in your conduct, dual service on the NJEA and Board of School Estimate creates “an undeniable potential for conflict”. Given that ruling, do you intend to serve on the Board of School Estimate as mayor, and either way, how will you resolve what the judge called the undeniable potential for conflict?
Spiller thanked Fortt for the question.
“As we speak right now, there’s a right wing, neo-conservative group calling itself the Sunlight Policy Center that’s out there pushing the narrative that because as an educator and NJ leader, as you note, that somehow that’s a bad thing. Many of you may have seen their ads on Facebook, but this so-called Sunlight Policy Center is a far right wing group that’s affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute. It’s a pro charter school, pro Common Core organization that’s closely tied with people such as Dick Cheney. The guy who runs it [Mike Lilley] is a big Chris Christie supporter and funder and only switched to Jeb Bush after Chris Christie denounced the Common Core. So certainly as an educator, a Democrat, a progressive who’s shown that I can stand for our progressive values but also do it while reducing our debt by 60 million and go from AA negative, to AAA, I represent everything their right wing group is against and they are spending big money to push out their message.”
Spiller thanked Fortt again for the opportunity to address this issue and dispel this notion.
“I believe in public education and I think it’s one of the most important services that local government provides. Of course, as a public school teacher, myself and our public schools are a big reason why my wife, who’s also an educator, and I chose to raise our growing family here in Montclair. So let’s be clear. I’m fully confident that any appointment I make will be free to serve and will do so well. Given our rich diversity of experiences and ideas in town, there will be many that I will rely on to find candidates that exemplify what we want for our students and our schools.”
“Let me be also be clear about what I value and what my goals are. I want the very best schools. I want to have the top educators possible in those schools because we have to attract the very best to get the very best. I’m mindful of the taxes I pay as is every educator and taxpayer and I know that there’s a clear budget and in order for us to stay within that budget; we need to have allocated resources in all areas in terms of the support we need for our students and our schools. That means balance and every educator knows that as well. There’s not one piece of what I just said, everything that I just noted, nothing differs in my role as a teacher, as a dad, as a homeowner, as a resident, taxpayer, public school supporter, association leader, current Councilman of eight years voting on the school budget, and as a mayoral candidate. The next mayor of Montclair is charged and has a duty to make appointments based on their values.”
And I’ve stated mine, that is the type of individual I will appoint working through a healthy set of recommendations I received. The law is clear on this and there’s no limitation on me or anyone in fulfilling this obligation. Now this is about values. Not only do I think people should be looking at my record, but if you’re concerned about values or looking at values, I think my values are more aligned with our community than those of the Sunlight Policy Center. So I stand ready to take action and I am committed to fulfilling my obligation as mayor,” Spiller said.
Fortt then asked Spiller to clarify, that given the ruling, would Spiller as mayor intend to serve on the BOSE or would he appoint someone and does he believe that through appointment he will be able to alleviate the concern that the judge raised?
“I think you’ve addressed it dead on right there. I’ve stated numerous times that I intend to appoint, rather than discussing this issue again and dealing with any challenges that would come from it. I’ve decided to appoint and I believe if you read the statute, it’s pretty clear with that flexibility, and I think it addresses it exactly as you note.”
Fortt asked Dr. Baskerville a different question: “In your campaign you have noted your longstanding roots in Montclair as well as the Montclair roots of your father and grandfather. The school does today face challenges that were long in the making and many residents might be looking for an agent of change in the mayor’s office to face those challenges. Given your long tenure in Montclair, already, what is your argument to those voters that you will make appointments that bring a change?”
Dr. Baskerville began her response by stating she was someone that is “coming in with no conflict of interest, in any areas.”
She added “I’m ready to go, ready and capable of appointing immediately a school board member that I believe is due for appointment now and the subsequent school board members. I’m coming in also with the background and the history of someone who served on the Board of Education and was given the name the ‘conscience of the Board of Education.’ I also served on the BOSE. I have an understanding of how important it is to bridge the community. That when you’re selecting appointments for the BOE, you include people from every walk of life. It’s almost the same way I decided I wanted to select the amazing people that are on Your Voice, Montclair slate.”
“I wanted people that represented every walk of life, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender…the list goes and I apologize if I’m leaving out anything. So certainly yes, as I mentioned before, we want to make sure, you know as much as possible the baseline with the academics, the finance, the law and the legislative. I also want to make sure that some of these people have backgrounds in health and wellness, not only physical health, but mental health and wellness as we get through this terrible storm of the COVID-19. It’s so important that we bring people that if I’m looking at the whole person, the whole child starting from preK and that’s why I say universal pre-K discussions needs to continue. Those discussions need to continue and we need to make sure that we have people that represent the entire gamut of the community.”
“I have relationships with people all over Montclair; I’ve either served or worked very closely with most of the groups that represent people from all walks of life. Recently, we are reestablishing an amazing relationship with the interfaith groups. A long time ago, when I was coming up, interfaith groups played a very large role in trying to desegregate our schools and just recently, they have decided that the time is now to come back as active participants. And so I hope to call on the established relationships that I have and make sure that we’re looking at everybody that can come in here. I also have given a lot of thought about elected versus appointed for education. And I submit today that after looking at what goes on when you have outstanding candidates, one with money and one with no money, Oh, well, the choice to me is clear. I will continue to make those appointments with a community board assisting me.”
Fortt followed up with Baskerville on the issue of change.
“I think the point on the question would be, if you haven’t brought the change that some people might want up to this point, why should they think you would make it as mayor,” Fortt asked.
“Well, actually I’m very excited,” Dr. Baskerville replied. “During my tenure on the Board of Education, which was many years ago, we were celebrating every which kind of way for Blue Ribbon schools. And I’m so excited that I had something to do with that. And that was during a time when we had the stable superintendents and we had stable leadership. And I don’t think we have leadership that’s not stable today. So let me be very clear. I think we have amazing leadership here. We just need to get somebody that’s going to be at the helm and make it very clear what it is that they need and more than what they are, you know, what their values are and the direction we move into. So I think we still have a foundation. We have amazing people that are in the MEA, and I’ve worked very, very closely with them, you know, for a very long time. And there’s no time that they don’t fall that I’m not there. But we also have amazing administrators and teachers. And so what I’m saying is at a time when we did have a very strong and stable superintendent in place, and we’re very clear that we need to go into, we had Blue Ribbon schools under my tenure and I’m grateful for all the people that work to help to make that happen,” Baskerville added.