Powerful State-Wide Teacher Union Leaders, Using Their Power Here in Montclair  

We hadn’t really noticed or thought about it much (because it’s not often brought up) but last week’s story about the school district health care plan got us thinking: we’ve probably got more senior teacher union leadership serving in important decision making roles in our town than just about anywhere else. And while we don’t tend to think this is inherently a problem, in the last few months we’ve repeatedly seen it manifest itself in ways that might well be.

Principally, we’re talking here about Vice-Mayor Bob Russo, a Vice President in the American Federation of Teachers, and Sean Spiller, Secretary-Treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association

We’ve written before about the issues we see in Spiller serving on the Board of Estimate and essentially having control over the school district’s budget. Even if this doesn’t have him directly across the bargaining table from the teachers in his union, it still places him in a position where he’s making decisions that impact his NJEA members that it’s his job to represent as Secretary Treasurer of NJEA – a conflict with his other job as an elected City Council Member representing his constituents (and who knows where he finds time to do what’s supposed to be his day job, teaching kids). In public, we’ve always thought Spiller seemed like a sharp guy, which is why we’re actually kind of surprised he’s saddled himself with such a clear conflict of interest at the expense of his constituents.

During the budget debates the last two years, it was principally Spiller who was pushing and grilling the Superintendent, and using the budget debate as an opportunity to go after the policy choices the administration had made. During the AssessmentGate fiasco, it was Spiller and Russo who pushed to quash the School district’s access to their own servers, in order to stonewall the investigation. It was Spiller who pushed forward a whitewash “investigation” to try to sweep the issue under the rug. And it was Spiller who pushed for a highly divisive national speaker to be sponsored to come to town attack the district leadership and the policies they were pursuing.

Sure, there are legitimate policy disagreements that they might have with the district leadership. And that’s fine. But in a town of our size, we think the fact that we have senior leadership from both of the major teacher unions in the state serving in our leadership is pretty notable.

More importantly, we think it plays a big part in why Montclair is being used as a proxy for their national political struggle: because they have the power to do it here. And they’re using that power to win their own adult political fights, rather than working in our kids best interests.

We think the quote we noted earlier from Bob Russo really sums it up: for them, this is a national political fight.

During the comment period, members of the public echoed the MEA’s concerns, including Deputy Mayor Robert Russo, who also serves as a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers union. Russo urged the board to respect teachers’ concerns and added that the AFT, New Jersey Education Association, and Montclair Board of Education are together in “fighting a national battle” regarding public education.

And the truth is, they’re just using our kids and our town as pawns in that. 

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