MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a forum on May 1 for the two mayoral candidates in the township’s upcoming municipal election.  The election, scheduled for May 12, is by mail-in ballot only due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing lockdown in New Jersey, which also relegated the mayoral forum to a Zoom conference. 

The full forum will be made available on Montclair’s TV34 public-access channel. 

Genesis Whitlock and Shalya George, Montclair High School students and members of the Montclair NAACP’s youth council primarily asked Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller of the Montclair2020 Progress In Action slate and Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville of the Your Voice, Montclair slate, questions about education as they pertain to the township’s minority populations.  The mayor’s few executive duties in the township’s council-manager system involve the school district a great deal, as he or she appoints school board members and chairs the Board of School Estimate.

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As with the April 22 forum involving all of the candidates for mayor and council, this event was less of a debate than a question-and-answer session on the issues, with opening and closing statements from each candidate and little if any disagreement on the issues.   Dr. Baskerville opened the event, citing her leadership in the community as a member of the NAACP and as a former member of the Montclair chapter’s executive committee.  She committed herself to continuing to fight for liberty, justice and economic empowerment for everyone.   “The pursuit of liberty, justice, and economic power for all are not only the cornerstones of the United States, but they’re cornerstones of the Montclair ideal,” she said.

Councilor Spiller, another NAACP member and a leading member of the New Jersey Education Association, thanked the Montclair chapter for sponsoring the event in his opening statement, saying that it was necessary to raise “a strong voice” to address the community’s challenges.  “Unfortunately, every time you feel you make a step forward,” he said, “it can feel like there’s two steps back.”

Whitlock and George asked both candidates how they planned to immerse themselves as mayor of Montclair in the workings of schools. 

Councilor Spiller said that he was ready for the task per his experience as a teacher himself, having taught high-school science.  He cited his devotion to students in the classroom and working with them to help them prosper academically and emotionally, taking pride in the teachers’ union’s financial support for the Restorative Justice Initiative to help disadvantaged black and Hispanic students.  Dr. Baskerville said she has been “consistently immersed in the school system” from her days as an elementary-school student and as a plaintiff in the Rice vs. Montclair Board of Education case that led toward school integration in the township. 

Dr. Baskerville also noted her work at Montclair High School in the Interim II program that strove to provide equal education opportunities for all students, as well as her own ongoing work with the Restorative Justice Initiative, and how this experience has enabled her to resolve conflict at a time when disrespect for one another is at an all-time high.  She also hopes to, as mayor, continue working with the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation and other programs meant to strengthen the community.        

On a more immediate issue – reimbursement of student parking permit fees in the wake of COVID-19 – Dr. Baskerville said that it was important to respect the boundaries of the Board of Education and recommended contacting board members directly, but she added that she would work with the board through her leadership of the Board of School Estimate on issues such as this one.  Councilor Spiller said that such an issue would be a part of the COVID-19 task force he hopes to set up with local businesses and organizations; he would work with the Council Finance Committee to identify money that can be reimbursed to students as well as resources to help parents, students, and others to get the help they need.  He said it boiled down to stimulating everyone in times of trouble.   

On the subject of threats to safety and student-well being, Councilor Spiller said it was important to appoint Board of Education members to work as a team as an answer those challenges. He said it was paramount to look out for the emotional well-being of students while going through the pandemic in the aftermath of lockdowns over various threats of violence.  He added that it was important to address the mental-health issue because such trouble comes from students, and that students should be counseled and listened to. 

Dr. Baskerville said that she has devoted her professional career to the well-being of students, and she called for a task force to respond to crises that affect the students.  “There has to be an individual or group - for example, the Health and Wellness Initiative that I served on the district in for years,” she said.  “They would be an ideal group to have people in place . . .  mental health professionals as well as physical health professionals . . . to be available so that students can actually talk about what they’re feeling.”  She said it was all the more important during the pandemic.

On the achievement gap, Dr. Baskerville said it was necessary to get more technology in the hands of students to allow them access to classes.  Although she was hopeful that the schools would reopen in September 2020, she was unsure how the pandemic would play out.  Greater Internet access, she said, would help reduce the achievement gap and enable educators to redouble the movement to close it.

Councilor Spiller agreed with her on making Internet access more widely available, adding that institutional racism needed to be tackled and advocating again for a united school board that could work together to handle the problem.  The possibility of school bus service for students from the minority-dominated South End also came up, with Councilor Spiller saying that it should be addressed immediately and Dr. Baskerville adding that the problem has persisted for too long, proposing the idea of making the township’s shuttle buses available in the interim while a new school-bus route is planned. 

Both mayoral candidates praised the students who got involved in working for a skateboard course to be installed in Rand Park, and they each expressed the hope that the course can be set up soon despite the ongoing pandemic. 

They also addressed the incident in October 2019, where teachers in the district failed to get paid. Councilor Spiller said it was an inappropriate incident generating outrage that was “well-founded.”  Dr. Baskerville said it was an example of how something going wrong for the teachers affected the entire township, though she expressed gratitude for the resolution of the matter.  Both candidates blamed the failure of consistent leadership at the top on the inability to maintain a permanent superintendent, with Councilor Spiller lamenting the frequent turnover in the district’s central office.  

The forum ended with closing statements centering on leadership. 

Although the mayoral office in Montclair cedes administrative duties to the township manager, both candidates showed awareness of how the mayor, as the leader of the council, is also the leader of the community and sets the course for the elected government. 

Dr. Baskerville said that her experience as a pediatrician uniquely qualifies her to lead Montclair through the COVID-19 crisis, along with her role in pushing affordable housing and also workforce housing for municipal employees. 

Councilor Spiller stressed his ability to work with a team as a school faculty member as evidence of his leadership skills, and he also played up his efforts to reach the community as a whole to bring people together. 

Montclair NAACP president Albert Pelham thanked the two candidates for their participation in the forum, and he reminded viewers to vote on May 12.