Montclair mayoral candidates — Dr. Renee Baskerville and Sean Spiller — were asked to discuss student safety and other education issues at Friday night’s Montclair NAACP Mayoral Candidates Forum.
Two Montclair High school students, Montclair NAACP Youth Council President Genesis Whitlock and Montclair NAACP Youth Council Vice President Shayla George, led the forum, asking Baskerville and Spiller questions regarding education in Montclair. Montclair NAACP Youth Council Advisor Diane Anglin introduced the students; the Youth Council developed all the questions asked during the forum.
Whitlock asked the candidates how they plan to immerse themselves in the Montclair school community.
Spiller said that as a high school science teacher and New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) vice president I dedicated my career to working in our schools, working for our schools, working for our students. Spiller recognized the “great job educators are doing throughout this state and certainly here in Montclair, to keep connected with students, to check in with them emotionally as we’re trying to provide that educational content,” describing it as “heroes work.”
Spiller also spoke of the Restorative Justice Program at Montclair High School.
“It’s not a program, it’s a different culture. Students are part of addressing the challenges we face, but also acknowledging the issues that are disproportionately affecting our black and brown students, being suspended from school or taken out of certain classes at a disproportionate rate. Those are things that we need to address, yes, with some consistency, but most importantly with student input. Restorative justice really helps to lead the way on that,” said Spiller.
“When you talk about the restorative justice work that’s happening in our schools now, those dollars and that funding and that training, it came from NJEA and the Montclair Education Association (MEA) and our educators who started that and said, ‘we need to have a different culture’,” he added.
Dr. Baskerville spoke of her long history in the township and how it relates to education.
“I’ve been consistently immersed in the school community for all my life. From the time that I was a young child and attending Nishuane School, from the time I was a plaintiff in the 1967 Rice v. Board of Education case and the list goes on,” said Baskerville, adding to it her involvement in the PTA and as a past member of the Board of Education. She also cited her involvement as a community board member in the Restorative Justice Initiative.
“We’re not doing such a good job of setting a great example for you,” Baskerville said of adults. “And so at this time, having participated in restorative justice with you and witnessed the great things that they’re doing, I’d like to recommend that we as adults learn the strategies of restorative justice so that we can better communicate with each other and respect one another.”
George asked Spiller and Baskerville to share their thoughts on the teacher pay incident at the beginning of the school year and what they thought they could do to prevent something like this happening in the future.
Spiller and Baskerville both attributed inconsistent leadership and superintendent turnover as factors in the payroll snafu.
“That cannot happen, the outrage everyone felt was well founded and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Spiller, adding that changes with the business administrator also affects whether other capital improvements in the district get done.
Baskerville said she was supporting the MEA and was “right up there on the frontline” during the payroll crisis. Baskerville added she was really glad they were able to resolve it, saying it was probably due to leadership of MEA and administrators working with them.
Whitlock raised the issue of numerous threats to safety at Montclair High School, and citing how student were expected to go to school with no real acknowledgement of the damage done to mental health and did the candidates have a plan to deal with this moving forward.
Spiller said as a teacher he knows how these kinds of threats have a lasting impact on students.
“I think what I’ve always stressed and would impart on any board member being appointed to a position is to understand that when we talk about emotional wellbeing or we talk about safety of our schools, we’re talking about some very tightly correlated things. Often times the challenges that our schools face, the catastrophic events that we’ve heard of, it isn’t always an outside person just coming in. It’s a student, a student whose emotional wellbeing hasn’t been cared for. It’s a student who hasn’t been heard. It’s a student who hasn’t had that opportunity to get to a better place, to get to a safer place. So when we talk about budgets and we talk about dollars that we put in for counselors and others who are going to help our students, it’s important that board members are laser focused on that,” Spiller said.
Baskerville said it was a “travesty that there has not been something you feel was in put in place for that.” She added that whenever there is an event when students are asked to leave school, there has to be a group of mental health professionals to be available so students can actually talk about what they are feeling.
“I’m very much aware of suicides in the past year and very recently,” said Baskerville. “We are missing things we shouldn’t miss. And never again we should talk about a young person who felt the need to take their life. We can’t continue to miss opportunities to communicate with our students, with parents, with the whole community to make sure everybody has the information they need to feel comfortable and engaged.”
Both candidates were then given an opportunity to discuss what makes them different from each other.
Baskerville said as a pediatrician she was extremely qualified to navigate post-Coronavirus activities. She also raised her long efforts over the past 12 years to fight for affordable housing and her involvement in the rent control ordinance that was recently passed. She also cited her leadership in raising the need for workforce housing for municipal employees.
Baskerville also talked about her regular community meetings and her ability to listen to people.
“I have a track record of showing up and serving on so many committees and commissions I can’t even name them all. I have a strong understanding of how each and every department works. I have a proven history of showing up. Montclair is my priority,” Baskerville emphasized.
Spiller stressed the same skills he has as a successful teacher transfer over to the mayoral position.
“You have to be able to work together as a team,” Spiller said. “We need to make sure we are looking out for every single resident but we also need to be looking at the community as a whole. We know that equity doesn’t mean equal.”
Spiller said he was thrilled that every every single incumbent council person chose to run with him on his Montclair 2020 slate shows he “can work together to get things done,” adding that a mayor has to help lead and guide.
Spiller, in his closing statement, talked about how coming out of the pandemic offers an opportunity for Montclair to show its strength but it also highlights the “challenges we see historically in our black and brown communities.”
Spiller went on to list his accomplishments during his council tenure, including his involvement to get earned sick leave in Montclair and a $15 minimum wage. He spoke again of how how proud he was of the work the MEA is doing with restorative justice and added that his slate of running mates receive endorsement from the MEA.
Baskerville closed by reaffirming her commitment to fight for Montclair.
“I was born into the fight for justice in Montclair. As a fourth generation Baskerville in Montclair, my family was involved in almost every civil rights activity that happened in Montclair. I am committed to continue to lead our township to make sure all of the laws we put in to place will exemplify justice for all,” Baskerville said.
She added that when she trying to choose her Your Voice, Montclair slate, it was important to her that she represent people from all walks of life, to represent everybody in Montclair, including the LGBTQ community.
“I wanted people of the township to look at us and see themselves,” says Baskerville of her slate, adding that everyone on her slate is a proven leader and no one thinks “they are above the law.”
The forum closed with NAACP president Albert Pelham praising the job done by Whitlock and George to run the forum.