Today is election day in Montclair, N.J. for City Council seats. One of the candidates, Sean Spiller, already beset by scandal, is projected to win his seat as Councilman of the Third Ward.
This small election may be only interesting to Montclair residents but it points towards a larger problem that is more familiar than voters know. As described in The 74, wealthy special interest groups create GINO groups (grassroots-in-name-only) to promote pet candidates. And, in fact, Spiller has piled up mountains of funding for this small-beans election and most of the money comes from NJEA and the Wayne Teachers Union. (Here’s his election filing.)
In addition, Spiller paid $12,000 to a political firm called Publitics, an unusual move for a council seat. Or not: the head of Publitics is Henry DeKonick who just happens to be the son of the president of the Montclair Board of Education.
Spiller is in line to become the next president of NJEA; he currently serves as Secretary-Treasurer. He’s also a member of the Montclair Board of Estimates, which controls resident tax levies for Montclair Public Schools.
Last February the Wall St. Journal reported this:
A top official at New Jersey’s biggest teachers union is at the heart of a court fight in Montclair, where a group of parents are suing to oust him from a seemingly obscure local post.
On one side is the secretary-treasurer of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, Sean Spiller, who also sits on the Montclair Board of School Estimate.
On the other side is a year-old advocacy group, Montclair Kids First. It sued last March to remove Mr. Spiller from that board, which approves the tax levy for local schools.
The battle echoes conflicts across the country between teachers unions and critics who say unions use their political muscle to promote the needs of members at the expense of students.
Montclair Kids First says the third-ranking official of the NJEA shouldn’t have any say over the district budget since most of it goes toward the salaries and benefits of his union’s members.
“The ethical conflict is palpable and does a great disservice to all the public-school students in Montclair,” said Shelly Lombard, a member of Montclair Kids First and a former school-board president.
In fact, a state court ruled that Spiller is ineligible for membership on the Board of Estimates. Education Week summed up a parent group’s argument against Spiller: “As a union official, he had a duty to support the union's priorities, not necessarily taxpayers', the group argued. (Among other charges, for example, the organization contends that Spiller didn't support local efforts to make teacher evaluation and professional development more rigorous.)”
The fix may be in for Spiller. Who, after all, can compete with NJEA muscle and bank account? Only parents, informed and energized by a history, in Montclair and no doubt elsewhere, of political ambition supplanting the needs of schoolchildren.