MONTCLAIR, NJ – On Friday, May 29, a civil case filed against Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller was heard before Judge Thomas Moore. Moore denied Spiller’s legal motion to dismiss the ethics and conflict of interest violations alleged by Montclair Kids First (MKF).
In a letter sent to an undisclosed numbers of recipients, MKF states, that Moore ruled in favor of MKF and has ordered that the "Montclair Education Association (MEA) must now produce key discovery information to the courts."
Spiller asserts that three of the four complaints were dismissed. He said, "The judge dismissed three of four complaints. No documents have to be produced, as now we go back to court to determine if anything has to be provided for the one count remaining."
Since first bursting on the scene a few short months ago, MKF, a community-based group was newly formed in response to the growing concern among Montclair parents surrounding PARCC assessment. MKF, who first formed as an anonymous group of concerned parents, has since emerged with some vocal participants, such as Jon Bonesteel.
A group of parents and educators called Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS), led by Michelle Fine, Regina Tuma and many others, have been vocally in opposition to the PARCC assessment. Since many of the MCAS members are also Montclair Education Association (MEA) members, MKF members have alleged seamless ties between the two. For the past year or so, MCAS has been vocal at Board of Ed. meetings and have hosted other community meetings on PARCC.
MKF members have withheld their vocal support of PARCC throughout the state and on social media. Instead of fighting their battles in an open forum like MCAS has for over a year, MKF has launched an email and legal battle in what MKF supporters say is to balance the argument.
On March 4, MKF filed a formal ethics complaint with Montclair Municipal Clerk Linda Wanat and then the Newark Superior Court on March 13 after the Township denied the MKF claim on March 12.
MKF’s legal challenge was to confront Spiller on his ability to serve as a representative on the Board of School Estimate (BoSE). The BoSE exists in towns that have an all appointed school board (Type I districts) as well as the one Type II district with a board of school estimate have a different process for budget approval. NJ State guidelines for BoSE state that after the school district prepares the budget (with the same format, guidelines and constraints of all other districts) the budget is submitted to a board of school estimate for approval.
Montclair is a Type I district where the board is composed of 2 school board members (appointed by the school board), 2 members of the governing body (appointed by it) and the mayor of Montclair. Spiller was appointed by his council colleagues to serve on the BoSE. Although the legal challege exists, many community members continue to support Spiller, regarding his position on BoSE and with NJEA an asset.
MKF has publicly held the position that Spiller’s position as a teacher in Wayne and subsequent election to Secretary of the NJEA, creates a conflict of interest. MKF followed their claims with a lawsuit paid for by private funds.
Representing MKF at the hearing was Shavar Jeffries of Lowenstein Sandler. MKF informed the courts that they have more than seven members. Spiller has since retained legal council with the law firm of Zazzali, Fagella, Nowak, Kleinbaum, & Friedman and is pushing back in court.
Spiller has since responded publicly stating that the claims are unwarranted. Having served on the BoSE since 2012, he has issued a formal statement stating, “Both the township attorney and my personal attorneys have reviewed the matter extensively and determined the claims to be baseless.”
Jon Bonesteel on behalf of MKF, stated in a letter, “Mr. Spiller’s ethics and conflict of interest initially began as a private matter between Montclair parents and Mr. Spiller some time ago. Rather than address, or even acknowledge, these fair concerns, Mr. Spiller and the NJEA have escalated this issue and done everything possible to defend their own interests, rather than work with the Montclair community."
Bonesteel continued, “On Friday, Judge Moore denied Mr. Spiller’s motion to dismiss the ethics and conflict of interest complaints against him. This is an important first step toward bringing greater transparency to our community and we greatly appreciate Judge Moore’s commitment to a fair and equitable process."
Bonesteel claims that the argument is that, “As the 3rd highest ranking official in the NJEA, Mr. Spiller’s fiduciary responsibility is to his union membership. Mr. Spiller has used his appointment on the Montclair Board of School Estimate to strengthen the Union he represents, and he has done so at the expense of Montclair's children and taxpayers."
Spiller continued his commentary, “While this shadow group hopes to devolve our township discourse into personal attacks, my Council colleagues and the residents I serve know that I remain focused on actual issues impacting our community, such as our success in reducing township debt, increasing funding for early education, additional support for our library, putting more police officers out on the streets with community policing, and unprecedented funding for street and road improvements.”
On April 26, Spiller’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, of which Judge Moore has now denied. This has resulted in the MEA now having to produce requested documents in the given time frame.
Editor's Note: Councilor Spiller contacted TAPinto Montclair after publication to clarify that three of the four complaints filed by MKF were dismissed. He said, "The judge dismissed three of four complaints. No documents have to be produced, as now we go back to court to determine if anything has to be provided for the one count remaining."