Catching up on Montclair Public Schools’ $187.7 million repair project (Our Schools)
Voters overwhelmingly approved on Nov. 8 the Montclair school district’s proposal to spend $187.7 million to repair schools. Earlier this month, the district closed on the sale of the bonds. Now school district leaders are taking the next steps to start repairing and upgrading the (very) old buildings. There are 25 projects in total. I sat down with David Cantor, the district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, to get the scoop on what’s next and what parents and their children can expect. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.
JB: When can we expect work to begin?
DC: Work has already begun. We will be resurfacing Woodman Field, which is in such disrepair that opposing teams are hesitant to play on it. It’s also become a safety issue. The district is working on the sequence of future projects while taking into account delays in getting materials, parts, school schedules and how much is involved in different kinds of repairs. The whole thing is being put into a working order right now.
We had our first meeting with the community advisory committee, a group of 20-plus people who will be able to reach out to their communities as construction happens. And it’s our hope this group will be able to flag questions for us as they arise.
JB: What plans are in place to minimize disruptions to classroom learning?
DC: It’s too early to give you the specific logistics of a project, but maintaining the sanctity of the classroom experience for teachers and students is our top priority. It would be silly to have ongoing interruptions to students’ academic schedules in the name of improving school for students. This is a core part of what we were looking for in a management company and part of the reason why we contracted with this company. They specialize in school construction manager projects. It's a non-negotiable that whatever we need to do to keep any distractions from kids, physically and academically… that's the starting point for everything we do.
JB: Are we going to see trailers?
DC: I can't be categorical. I would say we would only use trailers in the most difficult cases.
JB: Are you looking at ways to make the buildings more environmentally friendly?
DC: Absolutely, to the extent that we can, and we do have a few Montclair Climate Action people on this advisory committee. And irrespective of the [bond] plan we're pursuing various grants that are available for schools to make them more environmentally responsible. There's a ton of federal money on the table right now for schools. But some things aren't going to happen right away. For instance, some of our school roofs that we're fixing are either too weak or too slanted – because they are so old – to install solar panels. Even though our long-range hope is to put solar panels in, there's a sequence of repairs that have to happen before we can do this.
JB: How would you respond to the parents who are fearful that the district will pivot to online learning at points during construction?
DC: That's not going to happen. Barring any acts of God we have no control over, we are not going to do online learning. No kids are going to be asked to learn remotely.
JB: I know this isn’t directly related to the building repairs, but it’s paramount, and it speaks to the health of our community. Our children and teens are facing a mental health crisis that shows no signs of waning. How can the district help parents and teachers navigate this crisis?
DC: One of our goals is to become a trauma-informed district, which means paying closer attention to students’ emotional needs and recognizing that these needs evolve over time. We have a new mental health/anti-bullying coordinator, Maggie Dock. We’ve initiated new partnerships this school year with the Mental Health Association; Imagine, the grief and loss counseling organization, and the School Support Network, which focuses on social-emotional learning.
JB: And the teacher shortage? It seems like we keep hearing about teachers who have left the district.
DC: That's a challenge to every district right now. And it reflects sort of a change in the culture about how to think about work. People are shifting jobs all the time now, and it's one thing if that's a tech company, because they have this huge supply. In education, it's a lot harder.
JB: Last question. When can I expect to see a school calendar?
DC: The leadership in the district and the board want to get it approved as soon as possible.
JB: And what about abbreviated days? The kids are barely in school in November.
DC: One of our goals is to have substantially fewer of them. There's still a large number that we have to work around, for parent-teacher conferences, for instance. But we were thinking about trying to limit abbreviated days during these short months. There’s a lot of lost learning hours there. We really want to keep kids in classrooms as much as we can.
Jaime Bedrin is an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in journalism and media ethics.