Montclair officials: We need details to advance $60M schools plan
By TALIA WIENER
A plan to bond for $60 million dollars to update Montclair public school facilities remains on hold, while the body responsible for officially setting the amount to be raised waits on documentation from the school district, Township Council members say.
On Aug. 16, the Montclair Board of Education approved a resolution to bond for $57 million in building upgrades — $60 million, taking into account costs associated with issuing the bond. The upgrades were identified this spring in a long-range facilities plan. They include work across district buildings, including on the aging and sometimes absent ventilation systems that played a key role in the drama over whether and when students and staff would return to the schools last school year
That started the process moving forward, to send the matter to Montclair’s Board of School Estimate to formally fix and determine the costs of the projects. After that, the Township Council would adopt a bond ordinance.
The school board’s resolution represented a reversal for board members. It came weeks after board members said there wouldn’t be enough time to bond a smaller slate of facilities work, with an estimated price of $17 million, before voters would be asked to consider changing Montclair’s form of school district — and with it, the process for bonding.
Montclair currently has what’s known as a Type I school district — where the mayor appoints school board members, and the Board of School Estimate sets the tax rate and budget. The BoSE, composed of members of the school board, council and the superintendent, also approves the funding for capital improvements before sending it to the council.
In November, voters will decide if Montclair should immediately become a Type II district. That would establish an elected school board, dissolve the Board of School Estimate and put bonds for capital projects before voters through referendums.
But the council remains responsible for fulfilling its duties despite the upcoming election that may eliminate the BoSE, Mayor Sean Spiller said at the Township Council meeting Tuesday.
“The second those votes are counted, if it remains as is, we've been doing our due diligence and [the BoSE] would continue,” Spiller said. “If it changes, it would change immediately. But until then, we have a charge, and we're doing our job.”
With just over a month left until the election, council members say they are still waiting on more information from the school district to move forward.
A list of projects has been submitted by the school district, but the BoSE still needs a more complete breakdown, with specific dollar amounts tied to specific projects and a prioritization list of those projects, Councilman Peter Yacobellis wrote in a message to the community Tuesday night. Yacobellis has been a proponent of large-scale facilities work at the schools, and of moving ahead with the projects despite the looming election.
Council members have been asking the district for that information, “about ‘what do you need and how can we get it to you’” Deputy Mayor and BoSE Chairman Bill Hurlock said at the Township Council meeting Tuesday.
“As of this day, today, I still don't have any papers on what the ask is, and what the supporting documents ask,” Hurlock said at the meeting. “But that's what we're here to work through”
Hurlock has not yet responded to phone messages left on his cell and work phone on Wednesday.
The Board of Education has moved forward to ensure a BoSE meeting takes place, BOE President Latifah Jannah said at the Monday school board meeting. The Board of Education should be hearing back about a meeting “shortly,” Jannah said.
Jannah has not yet responded to an email sent Wednesday to her district address with questions about the bonding process.
Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings was voted on to the BoSE at the council meeting Tuesday night, taking the place of Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager, who is stepping down. Third Ward Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams also serves on the board.
Schlager and Price Abrams have not yet responded to emails sent Wednesday to their council addresses with questions about the bonding process.
“I think what's most important is we have somebody who understands our school system,” Cummings, who has served on the Board of Education from 2013 to 2016, said at the meeting. “We need to make sure that as we move forward with the business at hand, which may be short-lived, we can get to it.”
Cummings referred inquiries for the story to Hurlock.
Yacobellis also recommended himself to fill the open BoSE position during the Tuesday meeting. As someone who did not attend Montclair schools or have children in the district, Yacobellis said, outside perspectives like his own are “important and can add value.”
With Hurlock representing the First Ward and Price Abrams the Third Ward, selecting Fourth Ward Councilman Cummings for the open position would leave Montclair’s Second Ward with no direct representation, Yacobellis said.
Yacobellis said he or Councilman Bob Russo, as council members at large, would be able to represent the Second And Fourth Wards.
“I think it is problematic, and I think it undermines the integrity of that institution,” Yacobellis said at the meeting. “In terms of how our government is structured, or meant to function, I think this thing would be a shame.”
Yacobellis abstained from voting Cummings onto the BoSE.
Actions of the BoSE go before the council before they go into effect, Spiller said at the Tuesday meeting.
“Every one of us gets a chance to vote on what the Board of School Estimate moves out of their work and brings to us,” Spiller said.
Eric Scherzer, a board of education member and chair of its finance and facilities committee, declined to comment for this story. Board of Education vice president Priscilla Church and Superintendent Jonathan Ponds have not yet responded to emails sent Wednesday to their district addresses with questions about the bonding process.