Drilling Into Why Spiller’s Conflict of Interest Matters – Technology Spending Edition

We’ve followed the lawsuit against Sean Spiller for his conflict of interest in serving on the Board of School Estimate (while serving as a statewide official for the NJEA) with some interest. A lot of the pushback on it has essentially boiled down to “well, what’s the big deal?” Why does it even matter that a union official is in that position?

There is, of course, the first legally problematic reason: it’s a conflict by basic legal standards, and when it’s decided as such in court, it’s going to be a problem. That’s why Spiller should have done the right thing and stepped aside.

But the bigger question that we’re more interested in is why it matters. And from our perspective, the debate around the budget was a pretty clear window onto that. During the hearings, Spiller largely used his time to push major union political priorities. He also did this last year – to the detriment of our district’s operations, we’d argue.

During the March 30 Board of School Estimate meeting, NJEA’s Spiller drilled Brian Fleischer on how much the district was spending on technology, and particularly how it related to testing:

“Switching to an area that I heard a lot of questions from the audience about and proposed to me over time, there were a lot of questions around technology- technology and the use of testing, etcetera. Just to look at the areas of costs specifically, are there technology pieces that we are looking at as a district that we haven’t committed to yet or the costs have not been encumbered yet? And I see in the budget you present to us in some of the description you had $132,000 for technology professional services. We had a lease payment of $96,000 for laptops. You know, what are these items specifically in terms of? What effect would it have if we stopped payment for some of these items? What items do we… have we necessarily committed to but haven’t locked in a commitment on where we might find savings moving forward?”

There’s Spiller, drilling into the details of an extremely fractional part of the budget, but one that represents the partisan interests of his union and the union members he represents every day. Just last month, Spiller – wearing his NJEA hat – said both the NJEA and its members were “frustrated” with the PARCC rollouts:

Leaders of New Jersey’s largest teachers union weren’t convinced by Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe’s testimony on PARCC exams in front of the Senate Education Committee this morning.

In fact, they’ve still got “real concerns” about the test’s roll out.

“Some concerns — I think that’s an understatement,” said Sean Spiller, secretary/treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association. “We’re very frustrated, because our members are frustrated, what we’re hearing and what they’re seeing everyday. It’s unbelievable, because I think there’s such a disconnect between the message that’s being put forward and what’s really happening out there.”

And in his focus on this issue, he’s using the BoSE role to represent the interests of the MEA/NJEA members who pay his $200,000+ annual salary (assuming his salary is on par with the last Secretary-Treasurer) as an NJEA official, rather than the taxpayers of the town.

As we’ve written several times before, the district’s actual investment on technology is fairly low – especially relative to other districts – and there’s a good case to made that it should probably actually be a bit higher.

Spiller made the same press on the district’s technology investments during several BoSE meetings last year:

Spiller at 118:32 on 4/7/14: “I do also agree that we look at a lot of these technology pieces. Technology assists people to educate kids, it doesn’t educate kids. So it’s important for us to make sure we do the best. Regarding that piece, certainly Mr. Fleischer you know whether or not we can propose a resolution…”

Spiller at 20:30 on3/31/14: “I think we heard that question from one of the residents in the last meeting. In terms of fees associated with a lot of the technology, is this the ballpark that we think it would continue to cost moving forward for a lot of our licensing fees and things of that nature? Or at least is this the line it would be in, I assume, going forward?”

Spiller at 101:14 on 3/31/14:“I think one of the other pieces to that, that you mentioned, we as a body are looking at a lot of the areas you spoke about. As you know, we did note the attorney costs and we obviously are looking at the technology piece. And I think you just heard me ask that we’d like to, I’d like to see a copy of the inventory before we vote on this issue. So that’s an area we’re looking in as well.”

Spiller at 52:36 on 3/27/14: “You mentioned that the, and I heard it when we first met, that the technology inventory was just being completed. And you just stressed PARCC minimums versus PARCC recommended in terms of technology. Being that you now have the results back from the inventory, where are we in relation to minimum recommended? If I was to look at the difference there, how far apart? And what is that mean in terms of is it a case of not enough hardware is noted, is it some of the software pieces you mentioned? Where would that gap be listed now?”

Spiller’s push on tech spending mirrors his union’s animosity towards tech upgrades. NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan spoke at a press conference last April (a few days after Spiller asked so many questions regarding tech spending) on the proposed state budget. Blistan said the “expensive, technology-based systems” used to implement the “the new evaluation system and PARCC testing regimen” cut into other “much-needed programs for students.”

“School districts are struggling to fund the costs associated with implementing the new evaluation system and PARCC testing regimen.

By only providing token support, this budget will put districts in the untenable position of finding additional resources in their own budgets—which may require cutting much-needed programs for students – in order to meet the demands of these expensive, technology-based systems.”

And NJEA’s President Wendell Steinhauer wasn’t shy when he discussed PARCC testing during the Senate and Assembly budget hearings this year, saying PARCC should just disappear:

“I’d like to see PARCC just go away. I’d like you to drop out – be the next state to drop out,” Wendell Steinhauer, the New Jersey Education Association president, urged lawmakers. “There’s only 12 left in there, and quite honestly they need 5 million students to make it profitable. You drop your million out, and that would be the end of PARCC.”

In furtherance of their efforts against PARCC, the NJEA announced their plans to launch an aggressive attack campaign against the tests in mid-February.

“New Jersey’s largest teachers union has launched an advertising campaign against the state’s new standardized tests.

The New Jersey Education Association today announced a six-week television and online campaign with 30 second spots featuring parents and teachers discussing concerns about the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams, which all students in grades 3-11 will take in March and again in May.

Given the union’s antipathy towards tech spending (underlaid by the hostility towards PARCC) it wasn’t much of a surprise when Spiller went into his barrage of questions regarding technology spending during last week’s BoSE meeting, given all of the attacks by his union on technology spending over the last year. And in fact, the focus on attacking technology spending seems a fairly transparent effort to render the district unprepared for the PARCC exam and its teacher accountability component – that is, to stop an assessment system from moving forward.

Spiller’s attacks on technology spending look like yet another example of the NJEA agenda taking center stage at BoSE meetings. It’s clear how the NJEA feels about technology spending and PARCC exams, and Spiller is representing his union’s interests, rather than the interests of Montclair’s taxpayers. His job on the BoSE is to represent the taxpayers, not the NJEA. That’s why this matters.


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