NorthJersey.com had an excellent news story today describing the efforts of Montclair citizens to change from a mayor-appointed school board to an elected school board. As Sunlight readers know, the catalyst for this grassroots groundswell is the massive and judicially recognized conflict of interest embodied in NJEA President-elect/Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller, whose appointees now constitute a majority of the school board. As parent Daryn Sirota said, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the intense conflict of interest.”
Also contributing was a public letter from ousted school member Sergio Gonzalez (see Sunlight’s blog on the letter here), who made very clear that Spiller has handed control of Montclair public schools to the Montclair Education Association (MEA) and the NJEA.
Sunlight takes exception with one piece of information in the NorthJersey.com article, which claims that Spiller has been neutral in the battle between the superintendent and parents who wants schools re-opened and the MEA and NJEA. This is false. Back in January, when Superintendent Ponds was about to reopen schools, Spiller was quoted in the New York Times taking the MEA and NJEA’s position that all teachers had to be vaccinated before schools could reopen safely. The MEA then boycotted the superintendent’s plan, and Montclair’s middle and high schools remain closed to this day. Sensing the backlash, Spiller has since backed off that position, but at the critical moment, Spiller publicly sided with his union. These are facts: Spiller was not neutral.
Sunlight is encouraged to see Montclair citizens taking matters into their own hands. Despite tens of thousands of NJEA money and outspending his rival 8-to-1, Spiller won the mayoral election by less than 2% of the vote. Sunlight wonders whether, knowing what they know now about the consequences of Spiller’s conflict of interest, Montclair citizens would vote the same again. In any event, the vote to move to an elected school board will reveal where the public stands.
It would be ironic but gratifying to see that Spiller’s blatant conflict of interest spurs Montclair citizens to lessen it by taking school-board appointments out of his conflicted hands. Spiller has certainly proven to be a case-in-point for lessening mayoral power, and a cautionary tale about electing NJEA officers to high public office.