Spiller’s Excuses Don’t Add Up: He’s Used His Board Seat to Push Specific Budget Priorities for His Union

During a community meeting last month, Sean Spiller was asked about his conflict of interest – the whole having-a-seat-on-the-Board-of-School-Estimate-while-also-serving-as-an-NJEA-treasurer conflict. We covered his conflicts ad nauseam, and thought it was interesting that others in the community started to call out Spiller for as well. According to BaristaNet:

Inevitably, the issue of Councilor Spiller’s seat on the Board of School Estimate (BoSE) as a possible conflict of interest with his position as treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) came up. The question wasn’t whether it was a conflict of interest — Councilor Spiller has already insisted it isn’t. Rather, the question was why it wasn’t considered a conflict of interest, despite the fact that the councilor is a union leader and five of every six dollars spent on Montclair schools go to teachers’ salaries and benefits.

Councilor Spiller explained the BoSE has no say in what teachers’ salaries and benefits are. The BoSE’s  role, he said, was to decide the school’s operating budget. “We get a passed budget from the school board itself,” he said. “They come in and say, ‘This is what we asked for in our budget,’ we look at it and say, ‘That should be higher than you want,’ ‘It should be lower than you want,’ and that’s our role. We don’t go in and say, ‘Pay teachers more.’” He said that the BoSE meticulously questions everything in the operating budget.

Spiller insists that the BoSE has no control over the budget, that it’s already pre-crafted. But reviewing Spiller’s comments from the 2014 and 2015 BoSE meetings shows he made more than just a few simple suggestions. Spiller has asked very specific questions regarding the budget, and made some suggestions of his own during the March 30th meeting:

“But I do want to say Mr. Fleischer, I know that this is a very difficult process and I certainly commend you and the Board of Education for your work on this. I know that it’s not easy. I know that we have a challenge ahead of us here as well. And I am hopeful that we are able to push in some of these other areas that we’re talking about. And hopefully in terms of healthcare and what you’re able to hear from Brown & Brown and where we go there…I heard the mayor allude to possibilities of other conversations leading to some savings. I hope to see that as well. In a worst case scenario, you know that I’d like to see what does holding back on almost that $100,000 on technology mean? Is that another area we can look to save another staff member or two? You know, just looking at all these pieces I think that I’ve heard from a lot of community members and a lot of people in this room that we have got to do everything we can to keep as many people in contact with our kids- the paras and the teachers- as possible. And I think we also balance that against the need to be respectful of all of our taxes and other challenges we have in terms of paying our bills so it’s gotta be a balance of seeing “Are there other areas we can find some savings in this budget so that we keep those positions, but also are mindful of the increase we’re looking at and looking for.”    

Spiller insists that he has no say in staff salaries or benefits, but he has questioned bonuses (which fall under the salaries category):

95:30: What type of dedication is in this budget for…I guess payments that are somewhat discretionary and maybe somewhat not. What I mean by that is when we look at next year’s budget, does it factor bonuses that are paid out? What specific bonuses were paid out this year? And as we know that in the climate we’re in regarding superintendents and the reduced salary they’ve received, it’s almost become standard that you know, bonuses are automatic. In that regard, I’ve heard that there may have been some others put in this past year’s budget as well that may have occurred. How does that work moving forward in terms of what flexibility is there in this budget to continue that process in terms of paying bonuses? What’s anticipated in terms of paying bonuses, and what has it been for the last year?

Spiller also questioned Brian Fleischer about decreases in salaries for substitutes and secretaries as well as increase in salaries for administrative services:

11:33: The next one a little below that- salaries for substitutes, secretarial- for the schools and the over time for the schools. I noticed a pretty big decrease for both of those items, what is the rational for how you think you can reduce those both so greatly?

13:42: Next page, on the top line for the salaries for admin, info, tech services- I assume that’s the increase to the position and maybe also a few other things in that line?

From the looks of it, we’d say that this is more than just a hand-raising exercise—Spiller has the authority to say how our money should be spent vis-à-vis issues of great interest to his union members and he’s been using it. It’s incredible that he hasn’t stepped aside already.

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