[Following is a statement from Board of Education member Sergio Gonzalez presented during the BOE meeting of April 19th, 2021 on issues of governance in the district and in support of Vote Montclair’s campaign to convert Montclair’s school board from mayoral-appointed to elected.]
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.