How does the current BOE system in Montclair operate?
Currently Montclair is one of only 14 out of more than 500 municipalities in New Jersey with a so-called “Type I” school district, where the mayor rather than voters selects members of the board of education. In addition to the seven-member BOE, which sets policy for the district, there is a separate Board of School Estimate, which is composed of two members of the BOE and three Township Council members, and which has authority over the budgets for school operations and capital expenditures.
How would this change if Montclair switched to an elected BOE?
Under the state laws which govern conversion from an unelected, Type I district to an elected Type II district the current BOE would be expanded to nine members, with three members elected each November “at large” (meaning from the entire town), allowing for staggered three-year terms. Current board members would be gradually replaced by new, elected members over several years, in order of seniority. Meanwhile, the Board of School Estimate would be dissolved, and its power to approve annual school budgets given to the BOE and, in the case of capital projects funded by bonded debt, to voters.
What are the main arguments in favor of changing to an elected BOE?
Supporters of a change believe an elected BOE is likely to be more accountable and transparent, and that the appointed BOE system has failed to do the things it is supposed to do better than an elected BOE, including fostering a board that is diverse and rich in relevant skills, and keeping politics and discord out of local education policy. Meanwhile, over the previous decade Montclair has fallen behind towns with elected boards in many measures of educational success, including the achievement gap. Finally, given the ongoing trend towards elected boards, Montclair could soon be the last municipality in the state where residents are denied this most basic voting right.
What is the process of converting from a Type I to Type II district?
Conversions can either take place via a vote by the town council, or by popular referendum. The referendum process starts with the submission of a petition signed by 15% of the number of voters who turned out for the most recent election for New Jersey General Assembly, which was in November of 2019. This translates into 1,020 signatures, though in practice as many as twice as many will be required because of the likelihood of challenges to signatures by the Township, especially given the current reliance on online signature-gathering due to COVID-19. Following the certification of the petition by the Township council and a series of waiting periods, the question would be put to voters in either the next regularly-scheduled election or a special election. In the event of an unsuccessful referendum, state law mandates that no subsequent referendum on the topic be held for the subsequent four years.
Is it possible to have a hybrid BOE system with either a mix of elected and appointed members, or ones representing certain parts of the Township, as with the Town Council?
The mixing of appointed and elected BOE members appears to be prohibited by statute. And while there are no statutes expressly prohibiting election by ward and other possible alternatives to the nine-member at-large system used by the 530+ Type II districts, consultations with numerous legal experts on the question suggest that any attempt to do a non-standard solution would be unlikely to survive court challenge.
Would conversion to a Type II district diminish or disrupt the school district’s ability to borrow for capital projects like school repairs?
As part of the conversion Montclair’s school district rather than the Township would be the entity borrowing for capital projects, and some have claimed that such a change would deprive the district of access to the Township’s strong credit rating. However, discussions with several top experts on municipal finance, including at top credit rating agencies, indicate that as in similar towns the school district’s credit rating would closely track that of the township, meaning no meaningful impact on future borrowing for capital projects.
Would an elected BOE be less diverse than under the current system of appointed boards?
There is no reason to believe that an elected BOE would lead to less minority representation. For one thing, only two of seven current appointed members are African-American, while both candidates for mayor in last year’s municipal elections were Black. Instead, a better question is why one of the state’s most famously diverse communities is also one of the last where voters are denied the right to vote for members of their local school board.
Would BOE elections be vulnerable to spending by special interest groups?
To the extent that spending by outside groups might influence the seating of BOE members, the system of mayoral appointments is no different, as such groups can and have played a notable role in past elections for mayor, the office which has sole discretion in selecting members of the BOE.
Could an elected BOE lead to a “tax revolt” and a cut in school spending?
As with the issue of the influence of outside groups in BOE elections, the current system is ultimately responsive to voter desires via mayoral elections. Instead, an elected BOE is likely to focus more on transparency in budgeting, and residents’ needs and desires in terms of specific areas of school spending.
When would board elections be held?
State law allows school board elections to take place in either April or November, but following a change in the law in 2012 all but a few municipalities have switched to holding elections in November. As improving voter participation and engagement is the primary goal of switching to an elected BOE, Montclair’s BOE elections would be held in November, as part of the state and national elections held in both even and odd years.
Would having school board elections in November automatically mean fall municipal elections, or an end to Montclair’s “nonpartisan” form of voting?
No. Montclair’s quadrennial municipal elections would still be held in May, and BOE elections would be nonpartisan.