A 2018 stairway collapse at Montclair High School highlighted unsafe building conditions at Montclair’s older schools.

On Nov. 8, Montclair voters will be asked to support a $188 million bond referendum to fund comprehensive infrastructure improvements throughout our school district. This plan includes improvements at every school as well as athletic and performing arts facilities, and includes HVAC and electrical system upgrades, boiler and roof replacements, and other repairs necessary to meet health, safety and building codes.

As a lifelong resident of Montclair, a graduate of Montclair public schools and now a homeowner, taxpayer and parent of two children attending pubic school in Montclair, I share with my fellow Montclarions the concern that the costs of operating and maintaining a first-rate school district must be balanced against the pain point of Montclair property taxes. However, it is completely unacceptable that our students and teachers spend their days in unsafe, unhealthy, substandard buildings that are in dire disrepair and do not meet building codes. Many spaces in our school buildings are being wasted because they are dangerous or otherwise unusable. This is why I am supporting the bond referendum, and why I am urging Montclair voters to do the same.

The debate over how we got here and how we let things get this bad is a valid one, but it doesn’t change the urgency of our predicament, nor does it stop the clock on the aging and degradation of our facilities. In fact, the situation is so critical that the State of New Jersey has recognized the crisis and agreed to contribute $58 million toward the costs. Montclair cannot afford to pass up this opportunity for state assistance any more than we can afford to trap ourselves in an unpredictable and unsustainable cycle of throwing good money after bad on emergency repairs and stop-gap maintenance. This investment in our schools is not only the necessary and right thing to do, but it is the financially sound and smart thing to do.

School districts are a hallmark and reflection of a community. Our students, our families, our taxpayers and our community deserve a school district that accurately reflects the character, values and specialness of Montclair.

Brendan Gill is an Essex County Commissioner.

11 replies on “Op-Ed: Montclair Must Support Referendum to Repair Unsafe, Dilapidated School Buildings”

  1. Will those that control the school budget reform and start allocating money to a capital fund every year? If not this will be a recurring theme, as the bloat continues and the district finds ways to mis-spend taxpayer dollars in new ways.

    If this bind issue came with a zero-base budget initiative, pension reform package, and a capital savings plan I would vote for it in a second. As it stands I’ll be voting no. Without accountability this is simply another incentive for future mismanagement.

  2. Ok, you buy into the need for a substantial investment in our school facilities and the timeframe to accomplish it.

    However, we must reasonably couple the decades of district performance that has demonstrated a lack of financial planning, execution and controls in upkeep and modernization of plant & facilities. The old approach simply failed us time after time. But, we are asked not to look back, but forward.

    This approach is something new. We’re going big. Very big. The approach layers in a new planning, execution and oversight the district never had before. It assumes constant, ongoing attention. The community has promised this time they will stay directly involved and monitoring performance where it has not done this before. Commissioner Gill and other leaders are committing to do their part this time to ensure good execution in the years to follow. So, we seem to agree this is No Excuses time. No more how could this happen, the dog ate my homework BS.

    If people taxpayers are not up to it or feel it is not their role, than vote no. But, remember the vast majority of voters said they wanted more direct control via the elected school board. So, a no vote is also a vote of no confidence in the community. That is a whole other discussion we are not having.

  3. I will also take this opportunity to point out the lack of full-throated support of the bond referendum from the MEA, and by extension, the NJEA. Yes, the same MEA that demanded a detailed version of the school budget so they could review line by line. Yes, the version not given to, or demanded by the community. Don’t assume those stakeholders given standing speaking slots on the BoE meeting agenda, at the expense of elected members time slots, will stand with us in the community’s long-term financial interests versus their own immediate interests. It hasn’t happened before and there is no indication this will be different going forward. Just an “have your eyes wide open” caution when you cast your vote.

  4. So let me get this straight. Due to lack of foresight and incompetence our schools are in need of upgrades and repairs. The proposed solution is to spend 187 million dollars to rectify the situation. Who monitors the use of said funds? Incompetent but maybe well-meaning politicians? More money more room for corruption or at least incompetent decisions. How about we start with 7 or 10 million and see if a project can be done correctly and maybe even under budget. How about an independent committee of taxpayers on an oversight board. This town has developers, contractors, architects, construction attorneys, and other experts to draw from. Raising a pool of 187 million bucks seems like an aggressive amount to put into the hands of unproven politicians. Trusting those without the skill set to oversee these projects seems foolhardy. I doubt anyone is against improving the schools but there is a right way to do things and there is every other way. We have one shot at this. Is everyone confident that we will do things the right way? I think not.

  5. Very valid questions and concerns flipside.

    The district has committed to bringing in the skill sets, both by hires and contractors to provide the wherewithal necessary for success. Further, the elected representatives have committed to a new, higher, permanent level of transparency and communication to the community at-large….not just the parents…to inform at every key milestone. And to my prior point, the community has said it will step up and hold itself accountable under the our new system of direct governance. So, architects, accountants , developers, quality assurance types, et al, in residence will have ample opportunity to share their expertise.

    The offer is like a Macy’s One Day Sale….advertised at 40% off regular prices courtesy of the State. Ok, maybe it is really just 31%, but still a good deal because the discount may not be available again.

    What has been disappointingly downplayed is this scheduled $187MM was culled from a $300+MM master list of future needs. In a way, we are starting with just a portion. We have understated the degree of our prior mismanagement of capital investment and will have to cross that next bridge in the next decade.

  6. Thank you Frank, I knew you would be all over it. A few more questions. Once we have our hands on the money how is it invested until it is utilized? Is any income generated used for schools or does it go into a slush fund? Is 100% directed to school infrastructure or is there wiggle room? Nothing is free so concerning the money from the state. Is there any chance we will have to pay some back? Are there any strings attached. Example, using only state approved contractors or some other funny business. I assume this gift is a political plum for the town voting nearly 100% for Murphy. What happens if he gets voted out before we spend the money and angry citizens from Sparta or some other Red enclave come looking for some of their own loot?

  7. They will use interest bearing bank accounts and short-term certificates.

    Interest income goes to unrestricted general fund. Contract costs under bid are subject to adjustment. Our share of any savings go to unrestricted general fund.

    Eligible designated &/approve go only to named, scoped and costed projects. Some wiggle to reallocate State contribution within approved eligible projects based on savings and cost overruns.

    $15MM of $187MM was determined to be ineligible for Staten reimbursement. BOE can use this funding raised by taxes as they deem appropriate. They re not require to go through with the projects identified as part of this $15MM. I think it ia more likely we will need a chunk of this for overruns in eligible projects.

    We don’t have to pay back because the State will deduct if we fail to comply with their requirements. Falling behind schedule may be an exposure due to requirements or a change in State administration. Good government can always undue bad governance. I assume someone will want our votes as we are one of the larger municipalities.

    Not that I am aware of. State specific requirements (e.g. contractor selection, bid particulars) to this money that doesn’t already apply to school contracts in general.

  8. File following under pet peeve:

    There is a preservation term describing the demise of old buildings due to lack of care – demolition by neglect. It describes a extended process of what was once a structurally sound building to an unsound one and thru to its eventual razing. Advocates of the school bond would have us believing our school buildings are on the steep downside of this process (e.g. crumbling) due to both neglect…AND the original buildings were built 95 years ago. Hogwash.

    The former is a real cause. The latter is not. I am saddened so many people and respected organizations have used a form of structural ageism to make their case. It only takes a serious reader of the proposed project list’s allocation of dollars to understand most of this money is not going toward crumbling buildings. Further, most all of our school buildings are not obsolete. Many of their newer extensions are requiring allocations of this capital. If we don’t properly maintain our newest building, the 2010 Charles Bullock school, it’s lifespan will be immeasurably shortened.

    Conversely, if I’m wrong, the let’s have that conversation on a plan to replace these old buildings and maybe cutoff further investment in them. No point in throwing more good money in after bad.

  9. Frank, Thanks again for the clarification. So, 15million of the money raised can be spent at the discretion of the BOE. No oversight? Any interest income on funds held before use can also be spent without oversight? Depending on when the bond is issued there could be a profit from borrowing lower than the current short term rate or a loss for borrowing higher. Is there clause that any interest accrued be used against interest expense? I would think there should be.

  10. Just wanted to leave some information here about the money that we are getting from the state– not a political gift at all– the money for capital financing has been available for over 20 years, and is available to ALL communities.
    This link below is a bit outdated, but I think gives the basics about the financing. The state money is ONLY available to us through a voter bond referendum, so just want to reassure anyone who thinks that borrowing money to finance the projects is a bad sign. On the contrary it unlocks state funding. Lots of districts have passed referendums– recently including Glen Ridge, Millburn. Cherry Hill just approved a $363 million referendum–Clifton also recently approved a large one.

    This gives a bit of a description:
    https://www.nj.gov/education/facilities/laws/act_summ.shtml

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