Opinion: Elected BOE Can Help Repair and Lift Up Montclair’s Ailing Local Democracy

This year’s referendum on whether the members of Montclair’s Board of Education should be appointed by the Township’s mayor or elected by its voters has always been about more than just the BOE itself, and the role it plays in steering school policy.

Most of all, it is about an unusual and awkward question: Whether Montclair can benefit from adopting a feature of local democracy enjoyed by residents of 98% of this state’s beautifully diverse mosaic of communities, or whether there is some reason why we as a community are ill-suited to this democratic norm.

While I strongly believe there is nothing about our character as a community that makes it incompatible with the practice of annual school board elections, I also understand and respect why some people of good faith may think Montclair can’t benefit from, or handle, this basic voting right.

But if there is some deep conflict between this standard democratic norm and our Township’s character, it is a part of this character that everyone of good faith in the community should want to see changed.

Like any community anywhere, Montclair has its downsides and flaws, and one of these is a set of democratic institutions and habits that are by any reasonable measure stunted, and ailing. Our most recent mayoral election was a strange, choreographed affair more akin to something you’d read about in the international pages of the newspaper than what you’d expect in a commuter town filled with educated professionals. The one before that was even more dispiriting, with the incumbent and five of six Township councillors sailing to re-election in single-candidate races, like in a banana republic or post-Soviet dictatorship, except with lower turnout.

This isn’t the fault of any one person, party or institution. Instead, it is just a collection of bad civic behaviors learned, or not unlearned, over many decades in the shadow of one of America’s most famously authoritarian and corrupt big city political machines. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the ferocity with which some of our political insiders have fought back against this attempt by voters to secure a little more control over the civic life of the Township.

The good news is that Montclair’s stunted political culture is just that: A culture. And it can be changed, if enough members of the community decide it’s time to do so.

Beyond the chance to make the governance of our schools more accountable and transparent, and the schools themselves a little more successful at serving our children, this referendum offers an opportunity to repair and lift up the political culture of the Township, from one of “bossism” and cozy insiders to something more citizen-centered and civic-minded.

Ironically, one of the best advertisements for this comes from a complaint I have heard about moving to an elected BOE, namely that people may end up using election to the school board as a stepping stone to higher office. This might be terrifying for the insiders. I, on the other hand, couldn’t think of anything more wonderful.

Have faith in yourself as a voter, and in our unique Township’s capacity for self-government and civic growth, and vote YES on question number three.

Erik D’Amato is the founder of Vote Montclair and the parent of two children in the Montclair Public Schools.

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  1. Kudows to Erik for all his hard work and fighting the good fight here. His arguments in support of an elected BoE are for the right reasons, not a selfish commitment to the status quo that has damaged the countless opportunities we have squandered to do better for our kids. All one need do to decide (if at this point you are still undecided) is compare this post to the lame and cockamamie arguments made by others on these pages. Believe me, I’ve seen how the sausage is made and how the current system has failed. Vote for the future of our kids. Vote for an elected BoE.

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