Exiting Montclair BOE Member Says MEA Has Tried To Control BOE

Montclair Board of Education member Sergio Gonzalez, in a statement at Monday’s BOE meeting that was also released to Vote Montclair, came out in support of an elected Board of Education, stating that the MEA leadership “has worked tirelessly to usurp the BOE’s legal status as the decisive policy-setting power in the district, and in this effort has been almost totally successful.”

Montclair mayor Sean Spiller, who is also president of the NJEA, recently announced new BOE appointments. Gonzalez, who joined the BOE in 2019 as an appointee of Mayor Robert Jackson, speculated on Spiller’s decision not to reappoint him.

“As for why Mayor Spiller wanted me gone, and why he and some others apparently want Dr. Ponds gone, the answer should also not be much of a surprise: money, perks and power.” says Gonzalez.

Gonzalez also spoke of an effort to oust Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Pond, who took the position in July 2020.

“The brevity of my time on the BOE should not have been much of a surprise. This is a town that in the last eight years has had no fewer than six school superintendents: Penny MacCormack, Ron Bolondi, Barbara Pinsak, Kendra Johnson, Nathan Parker, and Jonathan Ponds. Now, less than a year after Dr. Ponds’ arrival in Montclair, I see a concerted effort to chase him away as well, despite his great work and the obvious and catastrophic impact this would have on the district’s ability to recruit a qualified replacement,” says Gonzalez.

Gonzalez writes that while his experience with MEA members has been positive, that has not
been the case with MEA leadership, NJEA leadership and the mayor.

Gonzalez states that the Montclair BOE “will now have a contract negotiation committee chosen from a pool where four of the five possible members have been appointed by Mayor/NJEA President Spiller, and where appointment may have been contingent on an interview with the current MEA President, who it also happens is currently a candidate for NJEA Treasurer. I know that at least one outgoing board member was asked to appear before the MEA President as a condition of reappointment.”

Gonzalez ends his statement by supporting Vote Montclair’s efforts to move to an elected Board of Education. Full statement below:


Fellow residents of Montclair,

When former Mayor Jackson invited me to join the Board of Education in August of 2019, I knew the assignment would be rewarding. I had many moments of joy during my tenure. I developed a strong love and appreciation for all the hard work that goes into developing a quality education for our children. A huge thank you to every custodian, paraprofessional, teacher, administrator and leader. Every child and family benefits from their hard work and good intentions.

In addition to the many moments of joy, my tenure was also marked by difficult but necessary decisions and unpleasant surprises. Last week, Mayor Spiller provided one final surprise when he decided to terminate my tenure after just 20 months of service. I knew my reappointment was not certain given how outspoken I had been about getting the children back in the buildings, but a part of me believed the mayor would live up to his campaign promise of an independent board. On the other hand, his decision allows me to say publicly what I saw and learned while serving on the body that is legally charged with setting education policy in Montclair’s public schools.

The brevity of my time on the BOE should not have been much of a surprise. This is a town that in the last eight years has had no fewer than six school superintendents: Penny MacCormack, Ron Bolondi, Barbara Pinsak, Kendra Johnson, Nathan Parker, and Jonathan Ponds. Now, less than a year after Dr. Ponds’ arrival in Montclair, I see a concerted effort to chase him away as well, despite his great work and the obvious and catastrophic impact this would have on the district’s ability to recruit a qualified replacement. (I could hardly imagine excellent candidates clamoring to come here given our track record.) If this does occur, we will continue to suffer the systemic challenges facing our schools, and especially the crucial work of providing a quality education to underrepresented and underserved children.

As for why Mayor Spiller wanted me gone, and why he and some others apparently want Dr. Ponds gone, the answer should also not be much of a surprise: money, perks and power.

Many will by now have heard allegations about the leadership and role of the Montclair Education Association, the union that represents nearly all of our school district’s employees, and its statewide affiliate, the New Jersey Education Association, whose incoming president is also our mayor, who currently has the sole power to appoint members of the BOE.

I cannot speak to all these allegations. And I want to be clear in separating my positive experience with MEA members from my less than positive experience with MEA leadership, NJEA leadership and the mayor. But I absolutely can say that the MEA leadership has worked tirelessly to usurp the BOE’s legal status as the decisive policy-setting power in the district, and in this effort has been almost totally successful. While the Board of Education is, according to law, the local body that sets school policy, the BOE’s power and independence today is to a great extent fictional.

The question of what constitutes a potential conflict with an institution like a BOE, or what might compromise its independence, is sometimes not clear to those who are too busy to get into the weeds. So let me give two relevant examples. One is that members of the BOE with family relations who are members of the NJEA are generally prohibited from sitting on the board committee responsible for contract negotiation, even if these family members aren’t working in the district. Another is the court order some years ago which prohibited then-councilmember Spiller from sitting on the Board of School Estimate, our school district’s separate budget-setting body, because of his day job at the NJEA. These are examples of the system functioning correctly, heading off potential or real conflicts of interest before they metastasize into something more grave.

Compare this to the fact that Montclair’s BOE will now have a contract negotiation committee chosen from a pool where four of the five possible members have been appointed by Mayor/NJEA President Spiller, and where appointment may have been contingent on an interview with the current MEA President, who it also happens is currently a candidate for NJEA Treasurer. I know that at least one outgoing board member was asked to appear before the MEA President as a condition of reappointment.

So, it is not just that with respect to the financing and running of the schools we have an inadequate system of checks and balances. The MEA/NJEA now effectively appoints the members of the Board of Education and, effectively, Mayor Spiller controls the Board of School Estimate. Over half of our local tax dollars go towards the school budget, and a very determined special interest group — the union that represents the employees whose compensation comprise some 80% of the school budget — is the de facto decision-maker. We pay, they decide.

But I suppose all this should not come as too much of a surprise, either. Just as large corporations often use the levers of politics to gain an upper hand over the public bodies charged with regulating them, institutions created to provide the public with services like education can be similarly “captured” by private interests. Making sure that public institutions stay focused on serving the public first rather than their employees — and the professional associations and political allies of these employees — is a key reason bodies like boards of education exist. Unfortunately, it appears to me that Mayor Spiller is clearly determined to prevent our BOE from performing this crucial function, and is instead privileging private interests over those of the public he pledged to put first. And it doesn’t matter that the town voted for this conflict, any more than it did five years ago when the country voted for a presidential candidate whose business dealings represented an insurmountable conflict with his official duties. It’s backwards and wrong, especially in a town which considers itself a beacon of political progress.

If all this sounds theoretical, the outcome is concrete. One of the most unpleasant lessons I had during my tenure involved the relentless budgetary math dictated by annual payroll increases roughly twice that of the statewide cap on property tax increases. In other words, contractual salary increases rise at a faster rate than tax revenue can legally be increased without a referendum. This inevitably squeezes out needed investment in our aging school buildings, and other pressing needs. Our school budget has been engineered to maximize personnel costs at the expense of all other priorities.

Among the many other forms of dysfunction I discovered was the large number of teachers with light class loads, some teaching as few as two periods out of the standard five. Such inefficiencies inevitably make our effort to provide the best education possible to our children nearly impossible.

The price for this misgovernance is not just measured in dollars and cents. While our schools have many strengths, their weaknesses are profound, and in some regards getting more acute. For years, one of our middle schools has been identified by the state of New Jersey as being so in need of improvement that it faces a threat of state takeover. Above all, the achievement gap remains a stubborn and painful rebuke to Montclair’s self-image as a community dedicated to racial and socioeconomic equity. Too often, these problems are papered over by faddish initiatives and willful overcomplexity, rather than a sustained focus on high-quality classroom instruction and support services.

We are all aware of the many challenges of the past year, especially those involved with the effort to return to in-person school. I was there. I was involved in the conversations. Dr. Ponds held several meetings in which it appeared that agreements had been reached for the teachers to return to their buildings for prep and professional development, paving the way shortly thereafter for hybrid learning, a crucial first step to normal school life for all students, like many districts have accomplished in the rest of the country. At the last minute, however, MEA leadership would consistently inform Dr Ponds and the Board that its members would not in fact show up for in-person work. This ongoing charade produced real stress and pain for the many families looking forward to a return to in-person schooling.

To me, it appeared that the MEA leadership was following a strategy that did not just include negotiating in bad faith but was based around being a bad faith negotiating partner. Nothing else could explain their behavior. I understood the frustration of the community because I felt it as well. So, when the Board considered empowering Dr. Ponds to pursue aggressive legal avenues, I made it clear to my Board colleagues that I would immediately resign if we did not give Dr. Ponds the tools to act decisively on behalf of our students and families. Along with formation of the committee to address the transportation issues at the high school to better serve the South End, it is one of the actions as a Board member of which I am proudest.

I also want to share my surprise at how the mayor’s latest round of appointments so starkly failed to provide representation for the Township’s growing Latinx and AAPI communities, the latter of which had in recent weeks been given new hope that it would have a seat at the table. In my opinion, the recent appointments do not appear to be anything other than a continuation of service to entrenched interests. The people who will pay the steepest price for this will be the Township’s least powerful stakeholders: its children — the very ones we are mandated to put first.

There are some who may dismiss my opposition to the status quo by saying that I am an opponent of public education. That would be the most cynical of lies, as I have been removed from the BOE precisely because of my opposition to those who seek private gain at the expense of our public schools.

On the other hand, those who may say that I am speaking out of anger at not being reappointed are 100% correct. I am angry — angry at being removed from the BOE because I dared to represent the interests of our children, rather than a political machine.

It is of course easier to complain about a system’s failures than propose ways to improve it.

I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how Montclair’s schools are actually run. And that has led me to a firm belief that Montclair’s residents should be given more of a voice in deciding who we entrust with the education of our children. I am convinced that is the only way the BOE will be genuinely reflective of the community’s desires and values.

That is why I have signed the official petition for a referendum on reclassifying Montclair’s school board from appointed to elected, and will enthusiastically support its passage when it appears on the ballot. I believe that nine elected board members will better represent the diversity of who we are, our unique points of view and interests, than seven appointees of the NJEA and MEA leadership.

I will also say that if anyone tells you that an elected BOE will make the board “political,” I can assure you from having had a seat at the table, it already is — just not in a transparent or democratically accountable way. Also, take time to think about why opponents of an elected board seek to deny to folks in Montclair the same voting rights enjoyed by residents in all our neighboring towns and in virtually every other community in the state. We need to be more engaged in local politics. It is time for Montclair’s voters to seize this moment, make our voices heard at the ballot box, and ensure our educational leaders act solely in the best interest of our children. If you agree, please join me and the more than one thousand other Montclairions – including many current and retired educators – who have signed the petition, and will soon be voting for a BOE that better represents the interests of our children and all Montclair.

Sergio Gonzalez

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12 COMMENTS

  1. “To me, it appeared that the MEA leadership was following a strategy that did not just include negotiating in bad faith but was based around being a bad faith negotiating partner. Nothing else could explain their behavior.”

    Nothing else, other than protecting the lives of their membership and making sure the buildings were safe for all to return to. If the ill-advised lawsuit proved anything, based on the judge’s denial of the injunction, it was that the district negotiated in bad faith by failing to produce evidence of the work it claimed to have done. For any reasonable person, the resolution to the schools reopening was obvious for weeks and weeks: proof of the temporary repairs, vaccination and warmer weather.

    This guy’s letter is just more of the tired allegations with nothing to substantiate them beyond this loathsome anti-union/anti-teacher agenda and the push for an elected board. Sounds like Spiller made a smart move by not renewing him. The board has had too many divisive, simplistic disruptors in recent years, blaming everything including a pandemic on the union, while ignoring the district’s own central office missteps and hiring fiascos. Enough.

  2. I’m not buying Mr Gonzalez’s ‘surprises’ as a foundation for his very long statement. I removed the editorial flourishes and it seems his chief complaints are the delayed return to in-school instruction and switching to an appointed BoE membership. The rest is basically rehashing of how Montclair funds and runs the district, e.g. the union contracts.

    Montclair residents have always been either ignorant or complicit in these performance issues. Further, he presents a fundamental lack of awareness of how the system is designed regarding accountability. This explains how he missed an integral argument that actually could support an elected school board. It is unfortunate this is not part of his lessons learned.

    The BoE votes to appoint its two members to the BoE in December each year. I don’t know how he voted. More importantly, the elected Council votes annually to appoint two of its members to the 5-member BoSE. The Mayor, or his representative this year, constitute the BoSE majority. Hence, there is always an elected majority and an appointed minority.

    This year, the two Council members, and the Mayor’s designated replacement are from the 1st, 2nd & 3rd Wards. The voters of the 4th Ward do not have an elected representative. Tough break. I have to wonder how our informed electorate would not have raised this issue earlier, of all years.

    My 1st Ward Councilor and the Mayor are my 2 elected representatives of 5 members that I was allowed to vote for. In past years, there was an At-Large Coucilor on the BoSE. This just elected Council decided there would not be an At-Large representative. And, off course, the majority of voters elected the Mayor knowing his day job.

    We can also expect an elected school board election to be moved to November. The reason? To leverage the turnout from what in NJ is a historically low voter turnout in the Spring.

    And the expectation setting is that this will give more transparency, more of a voice to a greater number of voters who traditionally have supported union contracts (at least the last 4) that exceed funding levels 50% higher than the 2% State budget cap. And an elected board will achieve better outcomes and performance to the many problems you listed.

    On a personal note, Montclair’s socio/economic demographic is changing. We have a flat, even declining percentage of households utilizing the public schools. We have increasing number of renters and are actively trying to maintain, if not reverse the percentage of empty nest seniors. Where in the last election, out of town interests funneled substantial campaign funding to the Mayor…and this wouldn’t happen with an elected school board having November elections. Finally, there has been an ongoing effort among key stakeholders to marginalize and diminish the voice of the Montclair households that do not have a children or children in the public schools.

    This is especially noteworthy as an elected school board will lessen direct control over capital spending and debt levels taxpayers have to cover.

    Personally, I flip flop on elected versus appointed. But, I take the time to understand the two systems and, yes, often get into the weeds of the actual mechanics. My point is there is plenty of dirty self-interested laundry to bring out. Unfortunately, attention to detail and understanding is not something our volunteer, part-time representatives and the general public are known for. His statement did not add qualitatively to the discussion. I think it actually had element of a public disservice in sharing his anger.

  3. Hurrah mr. González! Speaking truth to power(ful unions). So glad I don’t have kids in such a f* up district run by unions, progressives, and hacks with Doctorates in Education.

  4. It is really quite unbelievable that Sean Spiller, was elected as Montclair’s new mayor with his obvious conflicts of interest. He is now the president of NJEA, which he must be committed to in order to have that role, as well as Mayor of a town that has the mayor appoint board of education members??!!
    I don’t know Mr. Gonzalez at all, but he has certainly described in his open letter what many have had concerns about with regard to the influence of the MEA. He specifically made a distinction too between MEA “leadership” and the MEA members which I also have commented on in these threads. Perhaps not always, but certainly in present times this leadership has been particularly vocal, unreasonable and obstructive to the service goals of doing right by the kids in town with regard to the damage prolonged remote instruction has caused.
    Yes, a union should protect and advocate for it’s members but they also have a duty to the students as professionals (“professional association”), and that has been the problem and poor optics here.

  5. All of Spiller’s Appointments would be thrown out by a judge. Period.

    People are running for the private schools with good reason.

  6. There are some arguments that are so obviously correct or so clearly wrong that they do not require and are, in fact, trivialized by extended discussion. We saw much too much of that during the Trump presidency that has finally and thankfully ended. This discussion of the Mayor and the Board of Education is in that category. The idea that this town, whose largest expense and most important responsibility is the education of our children, has a Mayor who is the President of the NJEA is nuts! Our teachers and our children both have an interest and need to have our schools be well funded but after that their interests are just not the same. You can’t serve two masters and when you try the master who pays yor salary will always be better served. The mayor’s appointment of members of the Board of Education makes a bad situation worse. Discussions of what is a “legal” conflict of interest or who said what and when or whether we would be better served by an elected Board of Education are all beside the point that matters. There are not “two sides” to this issue and if you are going to suggest there is you can try to convince me the last Presidential election was stolen. It is a “big lie.”
    And as for the Teachers Union troll who fittingly posts here as “Montclair Public” as if the interests of the union she/he trolls for and the interests of “Montclair Public” were the same the postings reflect the troubled times in which we live where anonymous cowardly posting and disingenuous branding is a substitute for honesty.

  7. “The idea that this town, whose largest expense and most important responsibility is the education of our children, has a Mayor who is the President of the NJEA is nuts! Our teachers and our children both have an interest and need to have our schools be well funded but after that their interests are just not the same. You can’t serve two masters and when you try the master who pays yor salary will always be better served.”

    This is an assertion — albeit, one that is shared by a fair number of people in this town — in search of substantiation. If the town’s Mayor sent his/her children to private school, which we can assume has occurred in the past, the argument could be made that said Mayor would be partial to private school interests and less focused on selecting BOE members wanting to properly fund public schools. But rather than attack any Mayor’s character based solely on one’s opinion, or the belief that it’s impossible to serve appropriately in different roles, wouldn’t it be fairer to judge on the facts as we know them, or evidence to the contrary? Without such evidence, merely blaming the Mayor for the union’s protection of its members reveals more about those who allege a conflict of interest than it does about the Mayor.
    And as far as anonymous posting, why do you not sound equally concerned about those who would describe your town as: “A f* up district run by unions, progressives, and hacks with Doctorates in Education.”
    Unless you agree, only in a less crude manner.

  8. In my view all anonymous posting on issues of public importance is cowardly and harms the public interest. Anonymous posting by a troll representing the interests of a participant in a public debate is worse than cowardly. I wish it was not allowed. One of the reasons is that it allows posters to make preposterous arguments, like Montclair Publics does here, without taking any responsbiity.

  9. “without such evidence, merely blaming the Mayor for the union’s protection of its members reveals more about those who allege a conflict of interest than it does about the Mayor.”
    It’s just logical reasoning that as pelberg says above ” serving 2 masters” (especially those with often conflicting objectives in matters) is a conflict of interest. It’s
    unbelievable how Montclair public above rationalizes how it’s not!

  10. When the NJEA contract negotiation specialists come into town to help the Montclair teacher’s union with its next 3-year contract, do you think they will pop their heads in at 205 and say hello to their boss, our Mayor?

  11. Wow, go away for a couple of weeks and the fit hits the sham. As for anonymous postings no one is forcing you to read them or reply to them. It’s the internet so get over yourself, you are not the ruler here.

    The Township knew what they were getting into when the elected Mr. Spiller so now live with it. No use closing the barn door after the escape. Do I believe that the Mayor can dissociate the two hats he wears and be fair to both? Yes I do. Do I believe it was the right decision, no I don’t. I’m not sure the “two masters” idea is appropriate either. It sounds like a cutesy phrase that someone read in 5th grade. Has he done something wrong? Well other than being pro union in this anti union crowd.

    Then there was some discussion about returning to schools on May 10th. I believe, and prove me wrong, that it was entirely arbitrary. If you insists on the two master theory, look no further than the superintendent. Teachers and parents. Frank correctly mentions that cases are in the high risk zone in the town. How about the schools? Teachers quarantined, students testing positive, classrooms, administrators? What is this town hiding. Take a look at other towns and municipalities and their reporting. Each and every outbreak is detailed. When the test was positive, when it came back negative, how long it took and how many! I know sNt thinks that is entitlement but it’s not. It information that everyone should have and all across the country it’s being reported except Montclair. Oh but the union… give it up already. This has nothing to do with the union it’s the Township that needs to report. No names naturally but cases and locations, when reported and when it’s over in that building.

    Why in the world would anyone have a problem with that? All across the country, and presumably the world, reporting is detailed. Except here. Without Frank none of you would know a thing. How he digs into the sand to pull your heads out is admirable. And even though I agree it wasn’t the best idea for Mr. Spiller to hold both positions I have yet to see any conflict of interest that negatively impacts anyone here. Talk is cheap, anonymous or not. Show me some facts and while you’re at it tell me how many cases each and every school has reported, when and when cleared to return. Just like every other entitled township does in the state and country.

  12. I love this town! I really do. Mr Pond’s hot-off-the press latest plan is to start screening tests of staff and students (opt-in format, of course) the week he is opening the Middle Schools.

    A month late. He just said it would be a week or so late.

    Let’s make lemonade out of lemons.
    The MEA will be fully vaccinated by May 10th.
    No reason why both Middle Schools and the High School can’t open May 3rd.
    Why can’t this happen?
    You’re in or you’re out.
    You’re with us or aginst us.
    Pick a lane.

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