Back in 2009, discussion about whether Montclair should have an elected Board of Education, rather than an appointed board, dominated the news cycle, with two different groups – Elect The Board and the Appointed Board Coalition – forming and residents coming out on both sides of the issue.
The movement started with Montclair Watch, a grass-roots political action group, who said they were “fed up with the Board of Education and its escalating budget.” The group circulated a petition stating that “591 out of 611 school districts in New Jersey are classified as Type II districts, wherein registered voters in townships elect their boards of education. This is normal practice in a democracy. Montclair should be a democracy, not a benevolent dictatorship. Montclair residents should be respected enough to be entrusted with electing their representatives, including their Board of Education.”
Mayor Jerry Fried was among those campaigning against an elected board. There were problems with the group’s petitions, but ultimately the issue was put to the voters via a referendum and was defeated with 42.34% voting Yes, and 57.66% voting No.
“We take pride in the fact that by placing the referendum on the ballot, we engaged the community in a much needed dialogue abut the change that’s needed in our Board of Education,” said Pegi Adam, chair of the Elect The Board committee.
Fast forward to 2020, and there is another a movement to move from an appointed to an elected Board of Education.
Erik D’Amato, a Hillside and Glenfield parent, who is also “New York–based corporate intelligence operative and journalist” has come out in favor of an elected board and wants to see how many people might also be interested.
To that end, D’Amato has been circulating a survey.
D’Amato says after having attended some BOE meetings and getting to know its members, he believes having an appointed board is sub optimal and for the public to respect their legitimacy, BOE members need to be democratically elected.
“Otherwise, they will be treated like creatures, puppets appointed by someone else, instead of people doing a difficult job,” he adds.
D’Amato says that before any referendum on moving to an elected Board of Education can happen, proponents must agree on a model for constituting and electing a new board.
The timing of this new push for an elected board is interesting, given that Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller, who would appoint any new BOE members, is also vice president of the New Jersey Education Association.
During the months before the election, the issue of how he would make those appointments was a question he was asked to answer more than once. Spiller said he would fulfill his duties and “appoint independent Board of Education members who share the goal of providing the best possible education for our students at the very best value to taxpayers.”
D’Amato says he is not connected to any education reform group, but rather is interested in this issue, as well as a larger, related issue — increasing participation and voter engagement in town.
To that end, D’Amato’s survey also asks this question:
There is a movement in Montclair to join the 97% of other New Jersey municipalities that hold their local elections in November, to align with state and federal elections and increase voter turnout and engagement, and save the township the cost of holding a separate election. Do you agree that Montclair should hold its local elections in November?
(There was also a push to move Montclair’s municipal elections to November back in 2011, led by Mayor Jerry Fried and a group of residents, but the necessary petitions to get the question on the ballot were rejected after signatures were disqualified.)
D’Amato’s survey also introduces the idea for possibly electing BOE members by ward, to help address questions of representation and diversity. Under a ward-based system, at least one BOE member would need to be elected at-large, since there are four wards and state law requires an odd number of BOE member.
The survey asks:
If Montclair were to switch to an elected BOE, which of these models do you think would best suit the township?
A nine-member board with all members elected “at large”
A nine-member board with two members elected from each ward, and a board president elected at-large
You can see the entire survey here.
D’Amato says there are good arguments on both sides of the issue and hopes the survey will get more people to discuss how the Board of Education functions and whether a different model might be better.