Recently, my family watched on our local cable channel as one child and parent after another took the microphone at a town council meeting in the bustling New Jersey town where we live. The families implored, sometimes tearfully, the mayor and the council members seated before them to spare them from deep budget cuts that would remove a large number of teachers and paraprofessionals—in-class support teachers, mostly for special-needs children—from their schools. Their supplications were especially urgent since our town, which has among the lowest math and science test scores in the nation and mediocre reading scores, cannot afford to lose teachers. What was especially galling to these students and their families was that the cuts fell disproportionately on a middle school that served the town’s poorest children, many of whom are black, as are many of the kids served by the paraprofessionals. And, strangely, most of the teachers and support staff getting cut were math teachers.
To make matters worse, the distressed townspeople at the meeting were well aware that after middle school, their children would attend the town’s high school. In the high school—and at least one middle school—many of the bathrooms are in disrepair, with broken toilets, sinks, and stall doors. The locker rooms are apparently unusable since the students have no access to them during gym class; as a result, they take gym wearing their street clothes and have to keep their sweaty clothes on throughout the school day. Cars speed through the intersection where the school is located; two students got hit by a car last year. The school is understaffed, with one talented and caring paraprofessional whom I know, responsible for helping struggling kids learn to write, assigned to dozens of children. A case worker, also a caring and committed person, who tends to the social and emotional needs of the same population, has 50 students in her care. The high school does not even have a debating club.
We don’t live in a hard-pressed American city. We live in Montclair, New Jersey, a super-wealthy New York suburb celebrated by the media as an oasis of stellar schools, exciting cultural events and award-winning restaurants, and marked by a population composed of accomplished—some even famous—cosmopolitan people, devoted to the most progressive values.
In fact, Montclair is a morass of questionable financial practices and dysfunction—the town is mired in expensive lawsuits, with Montclair officials and revolving school principals, among others, suing each other and the town. Even many of the realtors who seem to run the place send their children to private schools and will confide to you that the schools they extol to prospective buyers as “excellent” are actually, as one realtor told me, “a disaster area.” In Montclair, you will find the Montclair Literary Festival, the Montclair Film Festival, the Montclair Art Festival, and the Montclair Music Festival; all these events are the pride and joy of the town’s progressive elite. What you will not find, in a town with some of the nation’s highest property taxes—57 percent of which supposedly go to funding the schools—is a successful and fully functioning system of public education.
Despite a loud commitment to DEI, and a decent and honorable school superintendent—hedged about by Montclair’s powerful vested interests—the town suffers terrible lapses with regard to the students in its care. One middle school social studies teacher left abruptly just a few weeks before the end of this school year to go teach in another school district; no one at the school gave his angry and confused students an explanation for why he was leaving. He was replaced by a teacher right out of college, who told the bewildered students that he “was not the biggest fan of reading.” He then informed them that he intended to take down a picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware hanging in the classroom. “Yeah,” said one student. “What even is that?” “Exactly,” he replied. Maybe I’ll suggest that he replace it with a picture of William M. Tweed crossing the Hudson.
Most of the school district’s efforts seem to go into avoiding yet another dreaded lawsuit. A year ago, a student complained that a substitute teacher in my daughter’s middle school was touching female students’ breasts and posteriors and gave one 11-year-old girl his cell phone number. According to this student, he seemed high on some drug. I wrote to the principal, who removed the substitute. This was followed by a state-run investigation and a letter from the state assuring me that . . . the school was not responsible for the teacher’s actions. How the teacher got hired in the first place and how, or even whether, he was disciplined—neither of these questions was answered. When I wrote to the principal, cc’ing the superintendent, expressing concern that the teacher would be allowed to teach in another school district, I got no reply. Instead, in the two emails I received from the principal, I was told with robotic sameness that “the children’s safety is our top priority.” The only activity that smoothly functions in the school district, it seems, is endless streams of evasive smooth talking.
It does not help that Montclair’s mayor, a professional politician named Sean Spiller, who reportedly wants to be governor, is also, incredibly, the head of New Jersey’s all-powerful teachers’ union, where he pulls down a yearly salary of almost half a million dollars. As the non-partisan New Jersey Education Report put it: “In 2019, then-Councilman/NJEA Vice-President Spiller was removed from Montclair’s Board of School Estimates by a Superior Court because of his clear conflict of interest. Unfazed by this judicial rebuke, Spiller then ran for mayor in 2020,” and he won. Only in Montclair.
Spiller’s status as union president could be why the union has barely made a peep of protest on behalf of the town’s teachers, as Spiller cuts teachers and staff while shepherding through a budget that makes happy those whom he needs to make happy. After a seven-hour public meeting with the town council, preceded by a seven-hour meeting with the town school board—both occasions suffused with the kind of warm, caring, socially conscientious rhetoric coming from town officials that woke culture has perfected—the destabilizing budget cuts were passed anyway.
As for Montclair’s exciting cultural life, the place has been so overdeveloped during the past decade that traffic accidents involving pedestrians have reached epidemic proportions, and it is nearly impossible to find a restaurant reservation or parking; and, shamefully, the town’s hardest-pressed residents, whom the town’s progressives insist they care most about, cannot afford to live here—and people in modest circumstances cannot afford to move here. Several black parents I know are determined to leave.
Behind the protective hedgerows of woke and progressive rhetoric, the liberal overclass that has nestled self-importantly into Montclair has stood by as the schools have declined, as its mayors seem to have sold the town out to a single real-estate developer, and as no fewer than six stations in this 6.32-square-mile town now run the trains that, many speculate, have been serving as a means of suicide for some despairing inhabitants.
Montclair is a case study in what happens when virtuous public language and sentiments become so thick and opaque that even the most seasoned skeptic comes to doubt his own skepticism—a case study, too, in how woke intensity has enabled the baser aspects of human nature to thrive in creative new ways.
I lived in Montclair with my then-girlfriend in the late 1970s, when we both attended what was, at the time, Montclair State College (it is now a university). It was a beautiful, soft town, with gorgeous old Victorian houses and so many trees, and varieties of trees, that it looked as if it existed in a dream-state between civilization and forest. It is still physically beautiful. We left after two years, and I always thought of Montclair with great fondness. So, in 2008, when my wife and I and our newborn son could not afford the space we needed in New York, where I had lived for nearly 30 years, we bought a modest colonial house in a tony Montclair neighborhood. It was still a lovely place—until a dynamic that had begun in 2002 took hold.
Ranked in a 2014 Harvard study the second-most corrupt state in the nation (behind Kentucky), New Jersey, even under Republican governors, has been a Democratic bastion for as long as I can remember. Montclair has always been one of the Democrats’ sturdiest redoubts. In 2002, when Montclair’s Democratic regime approved the activation of six train stations connecting the town to Penn Station in New York, it seemed that a lust for money took root.
Why a town that consists of just over six square miles needed six train stations, just blocks apart from one another, no one has explained. No one has had to. By then, the town’s political and social elite realized that a pot of gold sat at the end of a real-estate rainbow. “Only steps from the train” usually applies to a small area in any town. But a realtor could use that phrase as a selling point for nearly any place in Montclair a potential home buyer wished to live. The result was to attract people for whom living near a commuter train was more important than being part of a community. That’s one reason that the majority of Montclair’s super-wealthy and super-woke inhabitants care more about boasting that they live in Montclair than about what happens in Montclair.
In a town run by responsible people possessed of some degree of integrity, the town’s valuable real estate would be carefully deployed to benefit the town’s true riches: its children. But in Montclair, precious real estate is not developed. It is “redeveloped,” a category created in New Jersey to revitalize blighted urban land by giving developers tax breaks in exchange for rebuilding forsaken areas of a city. Valuable pieces of Montclair real estate are absurdly designated as redevelopments, despite the fact that they are located in prime areas and as far from urban blight as Beverly Hills is. Through a program called PILOT—“payments in lieu of taxes”—the developers enjoy large tax abatements; under PILOT, and unlike with conventional property taxes, the town has no obligation to spend a portion of the low taxes the developer does pay on the schools. Montclair recently had to threaten legal action against the real-estate developer, Pinnacle Company, which has had a hand in every one of the municipality’s most lucrative real-estate deals, to get it to make its payments under PILOT at all.
No property is off limits to commercial interests in Montclair. It is beyond belief that, especially in this day and age, Montclair permitted an eight-floor, 159-room hotel to be built a stone’s throw from an elementary school. The town’s municipal building itself is on the block; town leaders plan to designate it as ripe for “redevelopment,” even though the building sits on an attractive, tree-lined street. As of last May, Montclair officials have set aside $4.2 million to renovate the property. But at a town meeting, no official could come up with a list of the improvements that the money was supposed to pay for. Nor did any official answer a town resident, who wanted to know, according to a local news report, “why the township would pay almost double the lot’s assessment, which according to tax records is assessed at $755,800.” This is par for the course since no one in Montclair can tell you where the almost $4 million the town received in federal Covid funding went, either.
As a result of these financial dealings, in this very rich, tax-heavy town, which boasts dignitaries and celebrities and financial titans, teaching and staff positions are cut year after year. It is true that between 2018 and 2022, school enrollment dropped by 587 pupils as parents were driven away by Covid closures and by the declining quality of the schools, or simply sold their houses, whose value had doubled, and moved to less expensive, better-functioning, and more welcoming towns. Yet even as school enrollment was declining, spending mysteriously rose by $9,000 per pupil, and 55 new teachers were hired. That raises the question of where and to whom the money is actually going, and where the new teachers are being assigned, even as other teachers are being laid off. It is hard to tell since the town, the school district, and the union are not being forthcoming about anything of substance. One thing is for sure, though: because Montclair cannot keep track of its money, its children are suffering.
In this stifled and stifling environment, where a former Montclair high school psychologist told me that during a DEI training session several devoted white teachers, who had taught in Montclair for many years, broke down and cried when told they were “racists”; in this super-progressive wonderland, where students are conditioned in the right social attitudes but not taught how to write; in this deteriorating atmosphere, poor black students continue to fall through the cracks as their families struggle to hold on to their homes. In this town where status-obsessed media types suck up to the powerful and famous and write reassuring articles about each other; in this super-entitled, status-anxious place, good and decent people—they are still hanging on here—have to cry and beg to keep their schools barely functioning. No wonder the town’s upper crust, including some of its loudest media figures, all send their kids to private schools, after they have posed as publicly committed people by dutifully enrolling them in a public elementary school for a few years.
To add insult to injury, Montclair voters, under immense pressure, passed a referendum last fall approving $188 million to “repair and upgrade” the schools. (A recent triumphant email from the school district announced the start of work repairing an athletic field; meanwhile, many of the schools’ bathrooms are still in disrepair and the high school locker room remains unusable to gym classes.) Of this stupendous amount of money, an equally stupendous $75.7 million will go to “HVAC upgrades.” Allow me to repeat that. In this wealthy town’s school system, where teachers and positions are routinely cut, where devoted teachers themselves have to pay to fund the schools’ theatrical productions, almost $76 million will go to HVAC upgrades, the justification for which, the town’s inhabitants are told, is protection against Covid-19—plus the fact that, we are also informed, only one school has air conditioning. Never mind that Covid barely exists at this point, and that temperatures get hot enough here in northern New Jersey to make students and teachers uncomfortable for at most three weeks out of the school year.
It is especially disturbing that the original estimate for an HVAC upgrade was $28 million in the fall of 2020, which grew to $38 million in the spring of 2021. Eighteen months later, in the spring of 2022, the cost became almost $77 million. In April of this year, Montclair’s town council voted to indemnify itself against any criminal or civil proceedings.
You would think that at a time when the liberal media scour the landscape as never before, searching for the slightest abuse of power, what might be the pillaging of a fabled suburb by its political class, as its social and cultural elites indifferently allow it to happen, would attract attention.
But there is a likely reason that the national media have overlooked the darker side of Montclair: the employees of just about every major national media outlet live here, including employees of the New York Times, dozens of whom have made their homes in the town over the last two decades. These people care a great deal about their social status, which rises all the higher the more they tout the town’s exclusivity and virtuous pieties, and which helps explain, I think, why Montclair’s chimeric virtues have been celebrated more than once in the pages of the Times—a boost that doesn’t hurt property values, either. Though I’m a writer and journalist myself, the only honest and meaningful conversations I have ever had in the town have been with people who do not work in the media—people like Montclair’s police officers.
Thanks to realtor-ruled Montclair—the school PTAs are packed with realtors—our house’s value has soared along with everyone else’s. I like that. Thank you, realtors. But after seeing the people at that town council meeting, not media types or the town’s wealthy elite, but everyday human beings, pleading to save their teachers and paraprofessionals, I just couldn’t keep ignoring the town’s engulfing atmosphere of sanctimony, untruth, and greed. I care most about our children’s precious years of formative education, and I also care about the unfamous and unwealthy and media-unconnected parents and children with whom we share this town.