A step toward school repairs: Montclair school board hires bond counsel
By TALIA WIENER
The Montclair Board of Education has a bond counsel contract with firm McManimon, Scotland and Baumann, another step toward bringing a capital improvement bond referendum to voters in November.
The contract, approved unanimously by the board at its Jan. 19 meeting, retains the Roseland based firm “to provide specialized legal services necessary in connection with the capital program and the authorization and the issuance of obligations of the school district.”
Montclair voters approved a conversion from a “Type I” to a “Type II” school district system in November — and with it, did away with mayoral appointment of school board members as well as the Montclair Board of School Estimate, the body charged with fixing costs to capital improvement bonds under a Type I system before sending them to the Township Council for final approval.
The change in school system type means a bond plan of $15.5 million for upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning in the school district — or any alternative to it — needs to go to voters for approval. In the runup to the November referendum, the plan bounced between the BoSE and BOE, with members of each at times saying they were waiting on the other body for next steps. Members of both said they hoped to advance a bond before the referendum, but the clock ran out.
Board members have said they could aim for a bond referendum in November of 2022, when the district will hold its first regular elections for board members. There was not time to prepare a bond referendum before a scheduled March election for two newly created school board seats, members said.
Preparing a bond referendum usually takes about six months, and includes required steps such as an application to and review by the state Department of Education, and a formal notice to the county Board of Elections.
The Montclair Board of Education facilities and finance committee has been discussing the capital improvement bond process and will be meeting more regularly to put together a capital financing proposal as soon as possible, committee chair Eric Scherzer said at the Jan. 19 board meeting.
“I can't give you an exact date,” Scherzer said at the meeting. “But I hope with the addition of a bond counsel, we can come forward with a proposal that highlights the importance of improving our ventilation system and perhaps taking care of some other critical infrastructure problems that have been neglected.”
The HVAC project is seen as the most urgent by school leaders, struggling to address issues including coronavirus safety concerns in aging buildings. But it only represents a portion of the BOE’s request of the BoSE and Township Council last year. On Aug. 16, the school board sent the BoSE a formal request for $60 million in bonding. Then, when the BoSE met Sept. 30, school leaders outlined about $150 million in requested bonding, to be spread out over years — with the $15.5 million HVAC work up first.
In addition to requiring steps that take months to complete, bond referendums can only legally be scheduled at certain times of the year. A bond referendum can go to voters the second Tuesday in December, the fourth Tuesday in January, the second Tuesday in March, the last Tuesday in September or during the board’s general election on the first Tuesday in November, according to Charlene Peterson, Essex County representative for the New Jersey School Boards Association. School districts that have their general elections in April can schedule referendums then, but not in November.
If the district aims for the bond referendum during the November 2022 election, plans would have to be submitted to the state Department of Education in May, board president Latifah Jannah said at a Dec. 1 board meeting.