By TALIA WIENER
Montclair school officials plan to move ahead with nearly $60 million in major facilities work — just weeks after they said they couldn’t yet start the process for a capital improvement bond only a fraction of that size.
On July 26, Montclair Board of Education members said there wouldn’t be enough time to bond for $17 million worth of facilities updates, mostly to aging, broken or absent ventilation systems that played a key role in the drama over whether and when students and staff would return to the schools last school year. At issue was a looming November referendum that could change the entire process for capital improvement bonding in the district.
But Monday night, the board moved ahead with a more ambitious plan, approving a resolution to bond for $57 million in building upgrades identified this spring in a long-range facilities plan — $60 million, taking into account costs associated with issuing the bond. That starts the process rolling forward, to send the matter to Montclair’s Board of School Estimate, and then ultimately to the Township Council for approval.
School board finance committee chair Eric Scherzer said at the July meeting the board would not be moving forward with $1 million in design work for a $17 million HVAC project.
Scherzer said Monday night things were “not as clear” as he thought they were at that July meeting and he needed to “correct something.”
“At the last Board of Education meeting, I reported that the information I had at the time was that there was not enough time for us to move forward with our capital funding proposal to the Board of School Estimate and get that passed before November,” he said. “I’ve since had other sources of information, and although the timing is tight, I now believe that there is time to move forward in that direction.”
Montclair has what’s known as a Type I school district — where the mayor appoints school board members, and the Board of School Estimate sets the tax rate and budget. The BoSE also approves the funding for capital improvements before sending it to the council.
The November referendum will have voters decide if Montclair should immediately become a Type II district. That would establish an elected school board, dissolve the Board of School Estimate and put bonds for capital projects before voters through referendums.
Scherzer has not responded to a voicemail and questions sent to his district address Tuesday regarding details of the proposal. But the cost is pulled directly from a May 17 long-range facilities plan by engineers EI Associates. The plan includes many categories of work — interiors, plumbing, electrical and more — but the largest component is HVAC, priced at more than $38 million.
The board got feedback after its last meeting from community members who provided insight on ways to move forward, board Vice President Priscilla Church said at the Monday meeting.
“We decided that we’re going to put all our cards on the table, and we’re going to move forward with this,” Church said. “In spite of what, you know, we are facing as a community in November.”
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who’d advocated in messages to constituents and interviews with Montclair Local for a capital project bond issuance before the November vote, said he believed the Board of School Estimate could make its approval and have the matter to the council by sometime in September — “and hopefully possibly [the council would approve a bond] by mid-October with plenty of time in the regular schedule.”
If necessary, he said, the council could schedule an emergency session to pass a bond sooner. Moving quickly will be more cost-effective, Yacobellis said.
“These things were quoted already months ago, and raw materials and work delays, and all these things that are happening at a macro level, are driving construction costs,” he said. “The longer we wait, the more expensive things are going to get.”
Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at Monday’s meeting he is “excited about the commitment to improve our facilities” and has been in discussion with Board of School Estimate officials.
Ponds had not responded by press time to questions sent to his district address Tuesday afternoon regarding details of the renovations. Messages to school board President Latifah Jannah and Church Tuesday also hadn’t been returned.
Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who has served on the Board of School Estimate for nine years and is currently its chair, previously told Montclair Local he thought approving a bond before November was “unrealistic for a whole host of reasons.” His cellphone number did not appear to be able to accept voice messages Tuesday, and an email to him had not been returned. Fellow Township Council and BoSE members Robin Schlager and Lori Price Abrams hadn’t returned emails either.
If the bond is approved by the Township Council, an exact timetable for renovations will still be hard to nail down, Yacobellis said. All construction projects in school districts must be approved by the New Jersey Department of Education before they can begin, but that approval can come after the bonding process, he said.
“Let’s borrow the money, hire the people, get the supplies and go for it,” Yacobellis said.
Ponds said Monday Phase I of the district’s renovations are slated to be finished in November. School officials had described the plan for $17 million worth of work as Phase II.
The state of HVAC in Montclair schools has long been a concern, but one that became particularly acute in the coronavirus pandemic. A fall report by EI detailed $26 million worth of needed repairs, districtwide. Some rooms had no mechanical ventilation at all. Concerns about the state of ventilation and ongoing community spread of coronavirus played into the district’s decision to repeatedly push back planned start dates for hybrid learning in 2020-2021, and Montclair Education Association members refused to return to school buildings in January. Ultimately, the district sued the MEA, and the parties settled, with members agreeing to return to school buildings in exchange for more details on interim facilities work the district had done to make buildings safer.
MEA President Cathy Kondreck said members of the union told her they have seen little to no improvement in the HVAC systems. Small fixes such as opened windows and air purifiers were just temporary replacements for mechanical ventilation in the spring, Kondreck said. In the colder months, opening windows will no longer be an option, she said.
“It is a concern that HVAC repairs were not completed over the summer months like we had anticipated,” Kondreck said at the Monday board meeting. “I heard all that Mr. Scherzer said this evening about the work now being approved for the ventilation systems through the facilities report, and we look forward to having the work done in a timely manner.”
Kondreck also asked the district Monday night to provide the union with paper copies of its phased plans.
The MEA will meet with Ponds later this week concerning reopening, Ponds said Monday night. Jannah also announced Monday the board had successfully negotiated a one-year contract with the MEA for the 2021-22 school year.
Kondreck had not responded by press time to questions emailed to her union address midday on Tuesday.
The funding for HVAC in the resolution is “absolutely needed,” Church said at the board meeting.
“These buildings, unfortunately, and I’m saying this as a taxpayer, maybe weren’t maintained through the decades the way that they should have been maintained,” she said. “We’re at a tipping point now where it has to be done. And the plan that is in place will absolutely take care of the facilities needs.”
Parent Kerri McMahon said at the meeting she was worried the district and the MEA were not on the same page regarding necessary renovations before school begins in the fall.
“I’ve got this deja vu feeling that all stakeholders might not be onboard,” McMahon said. “Learning our lessons from the past school year, I was hoping Dr. Ponds might be able to share with us if the MEA was consulted and if they’re aligned to returning to school for a full day prior to the completion of Phase I.”
Ponds did not address those comments at the meeting.
Parent Jonathan Farb said at the meeting it was great to hear about the progress on the renovations. Farb is also a member of the Montclair Parents Advocacy Group for Education.
“We all know, decades of not taking action have brought us to this point,” Farb said. “Please continue to read out progress on this at every board meeting. It’s great to hear.”
An additional $2 million in federal funds, which was previously going to be used to fund smaller, urgent projects grouped together as Phase 1.5, remains unallocated. The board plans to meet next week to look at a proposal for the funds, including more ventilation upgrades and increased air purifiers, Scherzer said at the Monday meeting.