Montclair leaders and local organizations weigh in on school bond referendum
(COURTESY MONTCLAIR PTA COUNCIL)
Over the past few months, local leaders and community organizations have had one of three reactions to the $187.7 million school bond referendum – they’ve spoken up with their support of the referendum question, explained why they will not be endorsing it, or stayed silent.
On Nov. 8, Montclair voters will be asked to support a $187.7 million bond referendum measure, including work in all 11 of the district's schools. The average age of the schools is 99 years old, the Montclair school district says.
Groups that work closely with the district — the Montclair PTA Council, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, the Montclair Education Association and the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence — along with the Montclair chapter of the NAACP and some county and township officials have backed the referendum measure and are working to spread information and persuade voters to support it.
An advocate for older Montclair residents said the group is concerned about tax hikes.
The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. have said they will not be endorsing the referendum measure and explained why.
Mayor Sean Spiller has not directly endorsed the referendum measure, but he expressed his support for school improvements and investments. The decision is up to the voters, he said.
And two Township Council members have not responded to queries about their positions — Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings.
The proposal would allow the district to issue bonds three times over the next five years, with each bond set for a 20-year issue. The cost for the average homeowner in Montclair over the 24-year course of repaying the bonds is expected to be $732, beginning with an expected $258 increase in 2023. At the height of the bond costs, the average taxpayer will be paying about $2 each day.
The state Department of Education will cover 31% of the bond projects’ costs, totaling $58 million in the form of debt service aid, and 31% of the bond interest.
The projects — from hiring a construction management company to overseeing project timelines to managing project funds — will be the responsibility of the school district. The township government will not be involved.
Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and members of the Montclair Board of Education are required to remain neutral about the referendum, educating voters instead of asking them to vote in a particular way.
Many groups and individuals in town have spoken up with their support of the referendum question, while others have chosen to remain quiet.
The Montclair PTA Council has endorsed the referendum measure for months and is the leader of the campaign in its favor – creating an information website, distributing yard signs and flyers, and organizing informational events around town.
In an Oct. 22 statement posted on its website, the Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council also endorsed the referendum measure.
“After meeting with the Board of Education and district leadership, we know that the referendum will benefit all students within Montclair Public Schools but are thrilled to know many of the concerns of the special education community have been heard and will be addressed,” the statement says.
The statement highlighted some of the referendum projects that will particularly benefit students in the district’s special education programs, including a dedicated special education suite and sensory room at Glenfield Middle School, a new chair lift at Montclair High School, an elevator at Watchung School and new, accessible playgrounds at four elementary schools.
“The changes are intended to address the needs of all learners, including those in special education, create a desire to learn and prepare the Montclair Public School students for future success,” the statement says.
The Montclair Education Association supports the bond referendum question, union President Cathy Kondreck told Montclair Local last week.
“Although we have not written a formal press release, we have been very transparent with our response when asked our opinion on the bond referendum,” Kondreck said. “For example, at the last PTA Council meeting on Oct. 11, I was clear in stating that the MEA supports the bond and would like to see it pass.”
But at an Oct. 20 wine klatch hosted by the PTA Council, Montclair Board of Education members said the union support was not so clear.
At the PTA Council meeting, Kondreck said that while she supported the referendum measure, the union did not endorse it, Priscilla Church, board vice president, and Eric Scherzer, board member and chair of the board’s finance and facilities committee, said.
When asked why the union was not publicly supporting the measure, Kondreck said it was because the union still had questions, Church said. But after four meetings with the board members about the referendum, the union had not asked any additional questions, she said.
In a Monday message to Montclair Local, David Cantor, the district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, acknowledged the union’s support.
“We want to thank the Montclair Education Association for announcing its support of the district's $188M school bond referendum,” Cantor said. “Making our schools healthier and safer is a critical need, as is giving teachers bright modern working spaces and state-of-the-art resources to prepare Montclair students for success after graduation.”
Kondreck has not endorsed the bond referendum measure at a Montclair Board of Education meeting, during which she makes regular updates to the board. And there have been no posts showing referendum support or with information about the referendum question on the union’s Facebook or Instagram pages as of Tuesday.
“Moving forward, we hope that MEA members will be included in the conversations regarding specifics for each project at each building and very much want to be a collaborative part of the process,” Kondreck said.
Kondreck has not yet responded to an email sent Friday to her union address asking why the MEA has not yet endorsed the referendum measure in a more public setting, such as at a board meeting or on social media, and if the members plan to do so before the Nov. 8 vote.
The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence endorsed the referendum measure at the Oct. 17 school board meeting.
“MFEE is proud to be supporting the bond referendum and the efforts around communication,” Executive Director Masiel Rodriquez-Vars said. “We know that all of MFEE’s work to support students, teachers, families, and the district relies on our schools having updated and safe infrastructure.”
MFEE has been posting on social media about voting, including information about the referendum in emails to its more than 5,000 supporters, and is planning to send a dedicated email right before the election with additional information, Rodriquez-Vars said.
In September, Spiller told Montclair Local 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 the referendum measure.
“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.
Spiller is also president of the New Jersey Education Association.
When asked last week why he has not directly endorsed the referendum measure, Spiller said he has “long been on the record of supporting school improvements and investments.”
“While my position has been clear, both here in Montclair and statewide, it is now up to the voters to determine our community's path forward,” he said.
Councilman-at-Large Peter Yacobellis has been an outspoken proponent of the bond referendum measure. At his Oct. 12 town hall, he made a presentation on the referendum and “pleaded with residents to do right both by kids in our schools and those who rely on equity in their homes as nest eggs,” highlighting what he considers ‘the risk to the allure of Montclair if we don’t fix the schools,” according to a press release for the event.
In a Sept. 26 community newsletter, Yacobellis said the referendum will be a “make-or-break moment for Montclair public schools.”
“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,” he said in the newsletter.
After studying the referendum materials, Councilman-at-Large Bob Russo told Montclair Local in September he will be supporting 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.”
Third Ward Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams told Montclair Local last week she supports the referendum measure.
“I urge residents to turn out and vote yes,” Price Abrams said. “Passing the measure will support our students and families, educators, staff and the best interests of the township as a whole, as a path to modernize our aging school infrastructure.”
The state of the school buildings was on display during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. And with the commitment from the state to cover more than 31% of the costs, “we cannot allow this opportunity to be lost,” she said.
On Wednesday, Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager also backed the referendum. Schlager was hired by the school district in November 2021 and works as a secretary in the operations and school support services department.
"I will always support the Montclair public schools," Schlager said. "The infrastructure and safety of our schools should be of the utmost importance for the students and teachers in our district."
Bill Hurlock, deputy mayor and First Ward councilman and Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings have not responded to three emails sent to their township addresses since Sept. 22 asking if they endorse the referendum measure.
Hurlock served as chairman of the Montclair Board of School Estimate, the body that under a Type I school district was responsible for approving school budgets and for reviewing and fixing costs for capital improvements before they went to the Township Council for bonding. In November 2021, Montclair voters approved changing the district from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed board of education to a Type II system with an elected one.
The change also meant the Board of School Estimate would be dissolved, leaving the school board to put bonds directly to voters in general or special elections, as they are doing with this referendum.
Ann Lippel, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, said older citizens in Montclair have concerns about the referendum.
“They are aware that the referendum will result in tax hikes, and for many of our older citizens their budgets are already strained,” Lippel said. “With inflation results looming, the prospect of even more drains on their fixed income budgets cannot be taken lightly.”
In a 2013 survey of the township’s seniors conducted by the Montclair Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, 74% of the over 800 respondents indicated “that the high property taxes in Montclair would drive them out.” Lippel was chair of the committee at the time of the survey.
“Not much has changed since then,” she said. “In fact, the township’s response to the needs of folks over the age of 60 has not moved forward to compensate for the needs of a population, which is rapidly growing.”
Many have spoken out in the past few months about Montclair not serving its senior population. The township has been without an official senior services leader since the spring. Former Department of Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair Director Katie York left in March 2021 and was replaced by Margaret Church in June 2021. But since spring of this year, senior leaders say, Church has been out on disability leave. And much of Montclair’s Age-Friendly Community Action Plan, certified through AARP, has not been addressed, Lippel has said previously.
The plan aims to improve infrastructure by enhancing streets and creating safer pedestrian crossings, increasing access to transportation, easing zoning restrictions on accessory dwelling units and increasing the availability of alternative, accessible and affordable housing options. The plan also aims to increase access to health care and caregiving support.
“Montclair’s older residents want the schoolchildren to prosper and, in fact, they have always wanted Montclair’s schools to excel, but our community of seniors has been left out of this school bond conversation since its inception and so many other public policy conversations for too long,” Lippel said.
“Without our property tax support, Montclair’s budget would be in deficit.”
In its efforts to spread information about the bond referendum, the PTA Council is trying to make sure it reaches everyone in Montclair, not just those with a direct connection to the school district.
Those efforts included a letter-writing campaign, where volunteers sent letters to the editor to Montclair Local; short endorsement videos that are posted online with why different individuals around town – including a district teacher, parents, longtime Montclair residents and Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill – support the bonds, and coffee klatches during which small groups meet in people’s homes to discuss their questions and thoughts on the bonding measure. The PTA Council also ran a full-page ad in Montclair Local asking voters to support the referendum measure.
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 measure.
"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.
The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area will not take a position on the bond issue, Carmel Loughman, the League’s communications director, told Montclair Local in September. 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.
The Montclair NAACP and the League of Women Voters hosted a virtual referendum information session in September.
The Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., which hosted its own referendum information session at the Wally Choice Community Center, cannot endorse referendum measures of this nature due to its bylaws, Executive Director Craig Dunn said Monday. But the organization is doing all it can to spread the word.
“We picked up some of the documents that the district had, and we are passing them out to our clients that come into our office,” Dunn said. “We’re doing our best to try to inform people as to why it's important to vote for the referendum.”