The question has been raised whether Montclair voters should again consider whether to support a referendum to have an elected rather than an appointed Board of Education. Past referenda on this issue were held in 1963, 1969, 1971, 1995 and, most recently, 2009. An appointed BOE was the will of the voters in all years.
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. The League may do research on an issue, outline and debate its pros and cons, and then arrive at a consensus position voted on by League members. In both 1995 and 2009, the League studied the issue of an elected versus an appointed BOE and its position, at that time, was that an appointed BOE is best for Montclair for the reasons described below.
- With an elected BOE all members are elected at-large, not by wards. Thus, some parts of town may not be represented, and the BOE may not be racially diverse. Having each of the four wards represented on the BOE seems more equitable.
- There are only 10 petition signatures needed to run for BOE. Thus, you may have a candidate with a gripe or a single issue like antivax, voucher program, charter schools, prayer in the schools or a return to neighborhood schools, rather than one with broad educational concerns. Or, a candidate may run who is on a crusade to slash the school budget, and thus deprive our children of a good education. Poor quality schools (caused by drastic cuts) would make our town less desirable and bring property values down. With typical voter turnout at less than 10% such a single-issue candidate could win with very few votes.
- With an appointed BOE the mayor can appoint people with a variety of needed skills in such fields as education, finance, law, construction, or management.
- Being on the BOE is an unpaid, volunteer position. Many potentially desirable candidates might be pleased to be appointed to the BOE but might not wish to campaign for the office. It is time consuming raising money, meeting voters, and cultivating a base of support. It is very costly to run for any municipal office. In the May 2020 municipal election, for example, the five at-large candidates spent from $8,000 to over $36,000 each to attempt to win a seat on the Council.
- It would cost the town well over $50,000 every year to hold an election. Tax dollars are saved by having an appointed BOE.
- Every year the work of the elected BOE would be interrupted by the campaigning of its members running for another term or supporting new candidates. Raising money and attending election rallies takes times away from the important issues the BOE faces.
- Elected members often get locked into an issue during the campaign and may serve only their constituency. They may be less likely to believe that they have a responsibility to listen to, weigh, and balance community concerns.
- Intuitively, it seems more democratic to vote for your policymakers but it is not necessarily the American way. Persons in many influential positions like Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Members, CIA Director, Chair of the Federal Reserve, Director of National Intelligence, to name a few examples, are appointed not elected. Our mayor hopefully will select the best people, with the best skills, to represent all parts of town based on recommendations, and in consultation with the other town Councilors.
- By way of background, in a Type II district where there is an elected BOE, the seven members are elected for 3-year terms (3 members per year). The elected BOE develops the school operating budget which, after a public hearing, is then submitted to a public vote. If the operating budget is defeated, it goes to the Council which can restore the cuts or preserve them. If the cuts remain, the BOE can appeal to the state Commissioner of Education. The difference between the two types of boards is that the appointed board operating budget is finally decided by Council; the elected board budget is decided by Council, if the budget is voted down. The appeal process is the same.
- With respect to the capital budget, with an elected BOE there is a public vote on school maintenance and improvements, which is a separate vote from the operating budget.
- Voting on a budget does not guarantee that property taxes will be spent wisely to provide a quality education. Since between 80%-85% of the budget consists of fixed costs (salaries, insurance, pensions) there is not a lot of room for cuts. The balance of the operating budget is for special education, books, out-of-district placement, and other expenses.
- Budgets are complex and hard to understand. The present appointed BOE spends weeks going through the budget line by line before they submit it to the public. How many voters will do that hard work before casting a vote for or against the budget? The school budget is the only budget subject to voter approval. It becomes a lightning rod for public anger. We do not vote on the municipal budget, library budget, county, state or national budgets.
- People may posit that an elected BOE is more responsive to the public. However, experience has demonstrated that throughout the years our appointed BOE has responded to many requests from parents, students and the community. Every request cannot be granted, but should always be heard. The BOE allows extensive public comment at its meetings.
- An elected BOE is not really more democratic when fewer people vote in the school elections than municipal ones. Turnout for both elections is dismal, but especially for school board elections. Voters have the option to vote out the mayor, if unhappy with his BOE appointments.
- There is no evidence that an elected school BOE leads to lower or wiser school spending.
While the League of Women Voters has not studied this issue again this year, we will reexamine our position on elected/appointed/hybrid model, if such a referendum is on the November ballot.
– Carmel Loughman, Director, Communications, League of Women Voters Montclair Area