Three weeks ago a reader asked me an intriguing question: Is Sean Spiller, candidate for Mayor of Montclair and NJEA Vice President, actually running for the “Montclair Ideal” (as his campaign literature claims) or for the “NJEA ideal”? If Spiller wins the mayoral election, he would not only be Chair of the Montclair Board of School Estimates (which approves the district’s budget) but he would also appoint the members of the Montclair Board of Education. (Montclair Public Schools, atypically, is a Type 1 district.)
I am always interested in NJEA’s gamesmanship (although I have no opinion about Sean Spiller or his qualifications for Mayor). But the pandemic’s impact on education has taken all my time so this intrigue was relegated to the back burner.
Until today, when Mike Lilley of the Sunlight Policy Institute of New Jersey released a study called “COUNCILMAN SPILLER, MAYOR SPILLER, GOVERNOR SPILLER: NJEA Members Run for Office,” which posits that Sean Spiller’s campaign for mayor constitutes a “massive conflict of interest.” Lilley asks, “at what point does such a conflict of interest become detrimental to the state’s political order? “
First, let’s look at the list of people/organizations that have donated to Spiller’s campaign. If you go to this link for information from ELEC and type in “Sean Spiller” you’ll see the following donors and how much money they contributed to his mayoral campaign. Interestingly, few are from Montclair. Of course, NJEA is in there: President Marie Blistan donated $1,200 and NJEA itself gave him $8,200. A couple of other PAC’s are listed too.
But why did Governor Phil Murphy give Spiller’s campaign $2,600? Why did Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop donate $600? Why all those benefactors from Piscataway and Red Bank and Chapel Hill?
Mike Lilley has a theory: NJEA has a long-term plan to train members to run for public office and “SPCN [Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey] believes that New Jersey citizens should be aware of and concerned about these actual as well as perceived conflicts of interest, especially for high-ranking chief executives like mayors. The NJEA has spoken publicly about someday electing a member to the governor’s office. SPCNJ asks whether a Governor Spiller would be right for New Jersey.”
Lilley thinks not.
Let’s look back to Chris Christie’s 2009 election when NJEA was supporting incumbent Jon Corzine. The union employed “traditional tactics of outspending and out-organizing the competition” but lost badly. The next 8 years were tough. At Christie’s urging, 59% of towns voted down school budgets (a new law allows school boards to not put the annual budget to vote if it stays below the 2% cap) and the Legislature passed a tenure and pension reform bill that the union resents. Thus, writes, Lilley, “[t]he NJEA concluded that it was not enough to endorse politicians and use its political clout to keep them in line. That had not worked. So the NJEA decided the answer was to elect its own members to public office.”
To that end NJEA leaders started the “Political Leadership Academy” (PLA), which trains and supports union members who want to run for office. Why? Lilley quotes an NJEA post:
“Those who hold public office set priorities. They decide, for example, whether to fully fund public schools or give tax breaks to millionaires. It’s up to us to elect leaders who set the right priorities. It’s no longer enough to lobby decision-makers. We must become decision-makers.”
Lilley explains why he sees this as a conflict of interest:
Given that taxpayer dollars fund the NJEA, it is problematic that these dollars are being used to train and elect members of a special interest that expects those elected officials to advance the interests of the special interest – not the taxpaying public they are supposed to represent. In this way, every NJEA member that is trained, supported and elected by the NJEA represents a conflict of interest. That’s 1,310 potential conflicts of interest over the last five years. Not only can this result in actual consequences if pro-NJEA bias seeps into policy decisions, but there is also the perception of a conflict that erodes public trust in the institutions of democratic governance. It begs the question: At what point does a special interest become too politically powerful?
PLA’s “most famous graduate”? Sean Spiller, currently Vice President of NJEA. He’s been in the central office for seven years. Over that time he’s made $2,187,059. And, as current VP, he’s next in line for President of NJEA. (Current President Marie Blistan makes just under $400K a year, not including far more generous benefits than the rank and file).
Spiller has already gotten into a bit of trouble in Montclair. Lilley recounts when Spiller, as a Montclair councilman, was appointed to the Board of School Estimate, which approves the district’s annual budget. A local citizens’ group protested so NJEA attorneys mounted “a protracted legal battle.” The NJ Superior Court ruled that “Spiller’s service on the [Board of Estimate] was a violation of the conflict of interest laws” and Spiller was removed from that Board for “his conflicting fiduciary duties to both the citizens of Montclair and the members of NJEA.”
Now, writes Lilley, Spiller is “seeking to create an even greater conflict of interest by becoming mayor.”
In Montclair, the mayor appoints the school board, which is charged with representing its citizens’ interests in collective bargaining and developing the school budget. Sitting on the other side of the bargaining table from the school board is the [Montclair Education Association], an affiliate of the NJEA, to whose members NJEA Vice President Spiller owes a fiduciary duty to advance and protect their interests. So Mayor Spiller would appoint a school board that negotiates with the MEA, an affiliate of the NJEA, an organization led by Vice President Spiller.
In addition, the Montclair mayor chairs the Board of Estimates and appoints two council members to serve. The other two come from the mayor-appointed school board. “If Spiller’s presence as a single, appointed member of the BoSE violates conflict of interest laws [as the Superior Court ruled], then his presence as mayor and his ability to appoint ALL of the other four members, and thus control the entire five-member BoSE, presents an even greater conflict of interest.”
Why would Spiller try this power-grab, given the Court’s previous ruling?
Perhaps Spiller is counting on the vaunted get-out-the-vote capabilities of the NJEA and MEA to catapult him to the mayor’s office regardless of any ethical concerns. Perhaps he is counting on the fact that he will (again) be provided with top-notch NJEA lawyers for free, while private Montclair citizens would (again) have to mount an expensive lawsuit to vindicate their concerns. But the bottom line is that NJEA Vice President/Mayor Spiller presents both actual conflicts of interest and the appearance of such. No doubt another protracted litigation battle will ensue, with all the negative news and public disputes aired and a perpetual cloud of accusation and recrimination hanging over Montclair politics. Why would Spiller choose to put the town through this?
When NJEA started the Political Leadership Academy an officer mused, “we need NJEA members running for office at all levels of leadership. And who knows? An NJEA member sitting on a school board today, may one day become our governor.”
Governor Sean Spiller. Maybe that’s the endgame.