Lots of open questions as Montclair moves on to elected school board

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Montclair Board of Education to meet with the New Jersey School Boards Association to discuss next steps following the passage of Tuesday’s referendum, changing Montclair from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed board of education to a Type II system with one nominee, board chair Latifah Jannah told the Montclair local on Wednesday. Jannah is seen here at a school board meeting on October 6. (SCREENSHOTS OF THE MEETING OF THE EDUCATION COUNCIL OF OCTOBER 6)

BY TALIA WIENER
[email protected]

After this week’s referendum, there are big changes ahead for the Montclair school board’s programming – as well as its plan to move forward with tens of millions of dollars in school improvements. But there are also a lot of open questions as to how and when this is going to affect each.

“The board will meet with our representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association to address these issues,” Education Board Chair Latifah Jannah told the Montclair local on Wednesday.

Montclair voters approved changing their school district from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed education council to a Type II system with an appointed council. Once the election is certified, this will add two positions to the board, for a total of nine.

And the process used for capital improvements will change. Instead of sending the projects to a separate school board estimate to set costs, and then to city council to back them up, the school board will need to post bonds in front of voters in regular or special elections. The BoSE itself will be dissolved. And this means that the On August 16, the school board requested $ 60 million worth of work (later presenting to the BoSE a longer-term plan of $ 150 million spread over several years, and prioritizing $ 15.5 million for urgent HVAC projects) is not applicable.

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But there isn’t much guidance in state law on how and when to add two new board members after such a change, said Carl Tanksley, general counsel for the New Jersey School Boards Association, in a presentation at an Education Council Meeting on September 20.

“Some would argue that the statute provides enough flexibility for the board to structure the election the way it is to be conducted,” Tanksley said at the meeting. “Others would say the legislature has looked at this issue and will let you find out for yourself. There just isn’t a lot of guidance in the law on the process. “

The language of the referendum itself – a measure that seems to have been favored by voters in each of the 31 districts of Montclair where unofficial results are available so far (out of 35 districts in total), and by around 70% of voters in the township – offers little details on when two new members would be added. The referendum question only says that there will be “Regular annual elections in November. An interpretative statement clarifies that three seats will be available each November, starting next year – with current members serving what remains of their terms appointed by the mayor.

Tanksley, at the September meeting, said board members whose terms were due to expire in May 2022 would sit until the following January reorganization meeting, following the first general election in November with races for the board of directors on the ballot. The terms of three current board members – Jannah, Vice President Priscilla Church, and Alfred Davis Jr. – were due to expire in May 2022 in the Type I system.

The move brings Montclair closer to the majority of New Jersey – 97% of the state’s districts are Type II. Port Republic voters also backed the move to a Type II district on Tuesday, 298 to 139, according to Atlantic County data.

(In any case, the counts described here include only the results of Election Day, the results of the advance votes and the mail ballots processed so far. Outstanding mail ballots and ballots provisional votes have not yet been added to the totals.)

The decision also removes influence over the school district from the mayor, hitherto responsible for council appointments, and the city council, hitherto responsible for approving obligations. Some board members also sat on the BoSE.

For some voters, dissatisfaction with current officials – the school board, the BoSE and Mayor Sean Spiller (who is also the president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers’ union, an ensemble according to some, presents a serious conflict for the person responsible for appointing board members), played a key role in their decision to approve the referendum. On social media, at town halls, and in the pages of letters from Montclair Local, many said they were shocked by years of infrastructure issues, managing the return to schools amid the COVID pandemic, a succession rapid six superintendents since 2012 and a lack of spending on what they said were urgent needs.

Tanksley has yet to respond to a voicemail message left on Wednesday, after this week’s election, at his office. NJSBA public affairs director Janet Bamford has yet to respond to an email sent on Wednesday.

Erik D’Amato, founder of Vote Montclair, the group that successfully asked to put the referendum on a change of district on the ballot, deferred questions about the process to township lawyer Ira Karasick and the legal advisor of the school board Isabel Machado. But Karasick said that since the township no longer has a role in governing the school district, he couldn’t comment. Machado has yet to respond to multiple voicemail messages and emails sent to his office about the electoral process since October 19.

In November 2016, the Township of Orange voted to change from a Type I district to a Type II district. The city held a special election in March 2017 to elect two additional board members, one with an eight-month term and the other with a one-year and eight-month term, according to a 2017 notice from the clerk. The terms of office have been adjusted to create a board with rotating terms of three years, taking into account the remaining terms of the current board members.

Since 2019, Orange has elected three members to the governing board each year, for a three-year term.

The Board of Education may call a special election “when in its opinion the interests of the schools so require”, a guidance document on school elections created in 2020 by the NJSBA said. The election can take place on the fourth Tuesday in January, the second Tuesday in March, the last Tuesday in September, or the second Tuesday in December. The paper describes some problems with special elections to fill vacancies in certain circumstances – for example, after links or issues with electoral procedures – but does not address what happens when new seats are added to a council. , as happens in Montclair.

School officials had hoped the BoSE and city council would approve $ 15.5 million in CVC upgrades ahead of Tuesday’s election. Corn this process has experienced delays – with school board members saying they were waiting for the BoSE to schedule meetings, and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who chairs the BoSE, saying the district has gone long stretches without communicating or requesting meetings, which makes impossible to move forward. He also said it was not clear what exactly district leaders were looking for after first approving a $ 60 million request and then following up with a longer-term plan of $ 150 million.

Now, if the board decides to go ahead, it will have to file a capital improvement bond ahead of voters, either in a special election or while waiting for the next general election in November.

Special election costs are the responsibility of the school district, while general election costs are the responsibility of the county, Tanksley said at the September meeting.

Board member Eric Scherzer – one of three members appointed by Spiller this year, along with Crystal Hopkins and Kathryn Weller-Demming (after appointing Allison Silverstein in 2020) – declined to comment. Church, Davis, Silverstein, Hopkins and Weller-Demming have yet to respond to questions sent to their district emails on Wednesday about transitioning to Type II.

Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Ponds and District Affairs Administrator Nicholas Cipriano have yet to respond to multiple messages sent to their offices on Wednesday about the transition to Type II. The school district is closed Thursday and Friday while staff members attend a New Jersey Education Association conference.

In September, Noah Gale, a graduate of Montclair High School and a student at Montclair State University, known to many as an advocate for people with disabilities, announced he was planning to run for school board, if the switch to a type II has occurred.

Gale has a personal interest in “preserving and improving the quality of the school system” because of the positive experience he has had in Montclair schools, he told the Montclair local. .

“I can represent different groups in the community and make sure that others have a voice in educational and administrative decision-making,” Gale said in an email Wednesday. “As a member, I can be an intermediary for the concerns and interests of teachers and parents who deal with students with difficulties and learning difficulties. “

Gale said he would run on a non-partisan platform. He aims to be the youngest person to sit on the board and the first university student to sit on the board.


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