Montclair district, community partners plan information sessions about referendum
With a little more than a month left before the Nov. 8 election and a $187 million bond referendum to repair and upgrade Montclair school district buildings, the district and its community partners are working to disseminate information about the upcoming vote.
The Montclair Board of Education will hold two town halls to answer questions about the bonding. The first will take place Thursday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. at Montclair High School. The second will be Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. at Glenfield Middle School.
The Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. will host two events, in collaboration with the district, on Oct. 7 and 27 at the Wally Choice Community Center. Both will begin at 7 p.m.
Craig Dunn, executive director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., said last week he has yet to hear much feedback from community members about the referendum.
“I think people aren't clear as to what it is,” Dunn said. “Most people don't read.”
So events like the ones his organization is hosting are essential to informing people and “dispelling myths,” he said.
Dunn said he would wait to hear more information about the referendum question before he takes a formal position, but he does recognize the need for investment in Montclair schools. Having grown up in Montclair, he has watched the buildings age firsthand.
“You can’t have this beautiful community that everybody wants to come to because of the school system and diversity within the schools, but then your schools are falling apart so you send your kids somewhere else,” he said.
Even if residents do not have children in the district, their friends, their neighbors, someone they know, does, he said.
“Either they’re going to look at it as an expense, or they’re going to look at it as an investment,” Dunn said. “Montclair is going to fall backwards if we don't do anything to improve the quality of the buildings and quality of education.
The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and the Montclair branch of the NAACP will hold a virtual information session about the bonding on Wednesday, Sept. 28, “with the goal to promote informed voting in a nonpartisan setting,” according to the event page on the League’s website. School board members were to be at the session to explain the bond proposal and answer questions, the website says.
The event will be recorded and available for viewing afterward. Visit lwvmontclairarea.org for more information.
The League has not and will not take a position on the bond issue, Carmel Loughman, the League’s communications director, told Montclair Local. The group only takes positions on matters after extensive study, which often takes months, Loughman said. Due to time constraints and priority of goals within the group, the League has not had the capacity to study the issue.
“The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area has been directing its energy to the holding of candidate forums at the state and local levels, in light of the upcoming important midterm elections,” Loughman said. “Ideally we would like to address all referendum issues in Montclair and the other towns within the LWVMA sphere, but we have a very modest membership count and are stretched thin as it is.”
The group has not canvassed its members on their positions on the issue, she said.
In a Sept. 26 message to members, the Montclair branch of the NAACP announced the group had voted to support the approval of the referendum.
"We believe that the approval of the bond referendum by the voters of Montclair will ensure that the district can invest in the significant school facility requirements that impact the health and safety, code requirements and educational adequacy for our students and teachers," the NAACP message said.
Speaking for herself, not on behalf of the League, Loughman told Montclair Local she is concerned about many aspects of the referendum question. The question, as it will appear on the ballot in November, is confusing, she said — “it is written in the language of obfuscation rather than transparency.”
The question discusses the total project cost, $187 million, and the amount that the state Department of Education deemed eligible for aid, $172 million. Loughman argues that it is unclear why these amounts are delineated, and how much of those costs will be picked up by the township.
While the total cost is $187 million, the state Department of Education deemed $172 million as eligible costs, that is, the costs that they will assist in paying. Certain upgrades — classroom furniture, a gym addition at Renaissance at Rand Middle School, the central administration building — did not meet the state’s criteria. The district is responsible for the $15.6 million of ineligible costs.
The expected state share will be 31% of the project costs — $58.5 million — and the state will also cover 31% of the bond interest, Andrea L. Kahn, the district’s bond attorney, said at a Sept. 7 board meeting.
Loughman said she is also wary of a line in the question stating that the board may “transfer funds among the projects.” It seems as if once the bond is approved, the board will have the freedom to adjust costs at their discretion, without the input of residents.
In a response to questions sent from Loughman, the board said the transferring of funds among projects is permitted only if the “bids for some parts of the work come in lower and other bids come in higher.”
“This flexibility is necessary; otherwise, the district might not be able to do all the work required for some projects even if money is available because other projects were completed for less than expected,” the response said. “The district cannot transfer funds away from the work approved in the referendum.”
Loughman pointed out other concerns about the referendum: What is the district’s plan if it does not pass? Who will manage the projects to ensure that all goes as planned and according to schedule? What is the exact formula used to calculate tax impact?
“The Board of Education members come and go, who will be accountable to the taxpayers to ensure that the bond money is appropriately spent?” she asked.
Board members have said previously that a construction manager will be hired if the referendum measure is passed to oversee and coordinate the projects.
Zooming out from the school district to the township, Loughman is concerned that taxpayer costs associated with a new municipal complex will only compound the costs from the school district’s project.
And with all the funding that goes to schools already, funding that only stands to be significantly increased by the bonding measure, seniors in town remain without a senior center, despite years of advocacy, Loughman said.
“I find it hard to continue to support our level of school spending in light of the lack of responsiveness to seniors,” she said.
Loughman is also a member of the Montclair Planning Board.
The Special Education Parent Advisory Council will host a virtual information session about the bond proposal at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25. The Zoom link will be available closer to the event’s date on the group’s website, montclairpta.org/sepac.
As an educator, Mayor Sean Spiller said he knows “firsthand the importance of modern, safe and healthy schools.” Montclair students and employees of the district “deserve 21st century learning environments,” he said. But he did not directly endorse or disapprove of the referendum.
“I am pleased that we now will put this referendum to the public vote since the decision to fund the improvements I know are valuable, rightfully belongs in the hands of our residents,” Spiller said.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who has previously spoken out in favor of the proposal and the need for investment in the district infrastructure, will be presenting information about the bonds at an Oct. 12 town hall. The event, at the Montclair Art Museum, will begin at 7 p.m.
“This is a make-or-break moment for Montclair public schools,” Yacobellis said in a Sept. 26 community newsletter.
The district’s buildings “have been deteriorating for a long time now,” he said.
“Whenever anyone asks me about this, I have a short answer: It's a bitter pill that we have to swallow. Even if you don't have kids in the public schools (I don't), I'm sure you understand how the fate of our public schools and the prestige of Montclair (and home values) are intrinsically linked.”
After studying the referendum materials, Councilman Bob Russo told Montclair Local said he will be supporting and voting in favor of the referendum question.
“We have neglected to invest in our school infrastructure for too long,” Russo said. “I will be supporting and voting “yes” on the referendum in November because it is beyond time to invest more in our public schools.”
Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and council members Robin Schlager, Lori Price Abrams and David Cummings have not responded to a request for comment on the referendum question sent to their township emails last week.
The Montclair PTA Council is also working to inform voters about the referendum measure and convince them they should support it.
More than 100 people signed up to assist PTA Council efforts to support the passage of the bond referendum measure, PTA Council President Tessie Thomas said at the Sept. 19 Montclair Board of Education meeting. The volunteers will register voters, write emails and letters, host informational sessions in their homes, drive voters to the polls, make phone calls and more.
“The underinvestment for decades and the state of the school infrastructure is not lost upon anyone,” Thomas said at the meeting. “Together we will do the heavy lifting for the community investment plan.”
Ivy Sheibar, a parent and one of the PTA Council volunteers, said at the Sept. 19 meeting she was “definitely supportive of investment in our schools to make them safer, healthier, better environments for 21st-century learning.”
Sheibar, also a member of volunteer group Montclair Climate Action, said she wanted to ensure the schools project includes upgrades that “will help us move to a clean energy future away from fossil fuels and away from their emissions.”
“Governor Murphy's statewide energy plan has all of New Jersey 100% clean energy by 2050, with regulations proposed much, much earlier than that, meaning all our boilers, HVAC, our school buses and more would need to change,” she said. “This seems a great time to make sure that we're on the right path to that clean energy future.”
Montclair Climate Action is happy to support the district in any way needed to make sure that additional tax dollars won’t be needed in the coming decades to meet the state’s clean energy plan, she said.
“If this bond takes us right up to 2050, then let's make sure that what we're building takes us to 2050 as well,” Sheibar said.
According to a bond referendum FAQ posted to the district website, the project includes making “energy conservation improvements and upgrades,” including replacing obsolete HVAC equipment with high-efficiency equipment to “reduce utility costs and usage” and installing new roofs with “higher insulation values that improve the building envelope, further aiding in the HVAC efficiency while reducing heating loss.”