Montclair school board now eyeing a $190 million referendum
By TALIA WIENER
The Montclair Board of Education is now planning to ask residents this fall to authorize an estimated $190 million in school repairs and upgrades — broken up into three bonds taken out over the next five years.
The tax impact to the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $628,000 would grow over that time — ultimately reaching an estimated $870 per year by the fifth year.
Even the most immediately prioritized upgrades now eyed go well beyond the $15 million of heating and ventilation fixes described as “Phase 2” of a master plan by Parette Somjen Architects, encompassing projects in nine of the district’s buildings. The district previously considered starting with a bond for that work, another $37 million bond for projects identified as high priority the next year, and $95 million in future projects over the next decade.
Members of the board’s finance and facilities committee had said in recent weeks they were looking at more expansive work, but didn’t put a number on a new proposal until a specially scheduled meeting Monday where the committee presented a long-range facilities plan.
The finance and facilities committee, chaired by Eric Scherzer, has been working for months to assess and prioritize the needs of the district, alongside schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, Parette Somjen and school principals. The $190 million overall would be for work slated through 2029.
“Our buildings are one leg of a four-legged table, with the other three being our staff, our administration and our community,” Scherzer said. "The table won't stand without the fourth leg. That leg has been worn down and frankly worn out over the years. This plan will put that fourth leg on a solid footing.”
State aid would cover an estimated 28% to 34% of the total cost, Will Ross, Parette Somjen Architects associate, said Monday. But the aid would likely skew on the higher end of that range because about 90% of the district's proposed projects could be categorized as addressing safety, health, welfare and educational upgrades, the criteria used by the state to determine funding, he said.
The strategy, decided in conversation with the district’s bond counsel, is to bond in three parts, Scherzer said Monday. The proposed plan lists an estimated $70 million bond in year one, a $60 million bond in year three, and another $60 million bond in year five.
Using current interest rates and assuming an average level of state reimbursement, the owner of a home with the average assessment would pay an estimated $320 more per year for the first bond, officials said. In the third year, when another bond is issued, the homeowner would pay an additional estimated $275. Another estimated $275 would be added in the fifth year. Each bond would be paid over a 20-year period.
After walk-throughs of each building with Ponds and school principals, Parette Somjen Architects identified more than 200 structural items to be addressed, Scherzer said. The cost of addressing every issue identified by the firm was estimated to be over $300 million.
“Unfortunately, that's the cost of years or decades of lack of maintenance, attention and lack of investment,” Scherzer said. “It didn’t happen all at once.”
The committee, along with Ponds, reviewed all the items, assessed priorities and identified what items could be addressed outside of the bond through routine maintenance, insurance and warranties, Scherzer said. Some items were just deemed unnecessary or unaffordable, he said.
"The proposal that we are presenting in no way covers every item on everybody's wishlist,” Scherzer said. “It cannot do that and be fiscally viable for the taxpayers. And all of us, all the Board of Education members, many of the people that work in the district, are taxpayers, and we're concerned about that as well.”
The committee made its decisions based on two guiding principles — safety and excellence in education — Scherzer said Monday. It also focused on providing equitable investment across the district, meaning some schools that have been historically neglected were allocated more funds than others, he said.
“We haven't gone about this in a way of comparing money at this school and money at that school,” Scherzer said. “We've gone about it in a way of looking at what the needs are.”
Plans for repairs
The proposal is separated into two categories — infrastructure and educational enhancements — and broken up into 11 project types: HVAC upgrades, boiler replacements, electrical service upgrades, roof replacements, other infrastructures repairs and upgrades, practical and performing arts facility upgrades, gymnasium renovations, science and classroom upgrades, technology upgrades, special education upgrades, and athletic facility and playground upgrades.
It also includes a construction manager position, to oversee the entire project.
Upgrades to HVAC are the most expensive project in the proposal — totaling $77 million.
“The majority, if not all of the HVAC equipment in the district, is beyond its useful life,” Ross said. “It's in disrepair, obsolete, not operable in some instances, not efficient. And parts are becoming difficult to source for repairs.”
HVAC upgrades would take place in the administration building, Bradford School, Buzz Aldrin Middle School, Edgemont Montessori School, Glenfield Middle School, Hillside School, Montclair High School’s main building and the George Inness Annex, the pre-kindergarten building, Nishuane School, Northeast School, Renaissance at Rand Middle School and Watchung School.
Air conditioning would also be installed in all schools, Ross said.
Boiler replacements would total $9.5 million, with new boilers for Bradford, Buzz Aldrin, Edgemont, George Inness, MHS, Nishuane, Northeast, Renaissance and Watchung. The average age of a boiler in the district is 30 years, but some systems are up to 70 years old, Ross said Monday.
Electrical services upgrades, required to handle the increased electrical load from air conditioning and technology upgrades that are also part of the proposal, would total $3 million. Electrical projects would be at Bradford, Buzz Aldrin, Glenfield, Hillside, Montclair High School’s main building and George Inness Annex, Nishuane, Renaissance and Watchung.
Partial and full roof replacements would total $9.5 million, with projects at the administration building, Bradford, Edgemont, Glenfield, Hillside, the pre-kindergarten building, Northeast and Renaissance.
Other planned infrastructure repairs and upgrades, totaling $6.5 million, include staircase projects, site drainage, clocks, intercom systems and security systems.
The next category of projects is educational enhancements, a result of collaboration with principals and Ponds to bring Montclair schools into the 21st century, officials said.
Practical and performing arts facilities upgrades would total $21 million, with upgrades to ceilings, lightings, furniture and other facilities. The auditorium at MHS would be completely overhauled, at a cost of $8 million, with upgrades to lighting, sound and video systems and seating. Other auditorium upgrades would be at Hillside, Buzz Aldrin, Nishuane and Edgemont. Music rooms would also get sound improvements, furniture upgrades and more.
The culinary arts classroom, damaged during flooding from Hurricane Ida, would receive a new ceiling, lighting, finishes and equipment for a state-of-the-art culinary classroom. The industrial art classroom would receive electrical upgrades, emergency shut off switches for electrical equipment, lighting and other upgrades.
Gymnasium renovations would total $8 million, including upgrades to sports flooring, equipment and scoreboards. Classroom upgrades would total $24.5 million, with upgrades to ceilings and lighting and the addition of flexible furniture.
Technology upgrades for classrooms would total $11 million, including maker spaces, computer lab upgrades, and new technology such as 3D printers and laser cutters. The upgrades also would include interactive touchscreen displays in classrooms, instead of projectors.
The proposal does not specify makes and models of proposed technology, so the district is not locked into identifying present-day models that may be outdated once they are actually installed in classrooms in the coming years, Ross said.
Special education upgrades would total $3.5 million, including ceiling and lighting upgrades, sensory rooms, specialized equipment and more.
Athletic facility and playground upgrades would total $16.5 million. The proposal includes a new turf field at Hillside School; a grass field there does not drain well, Ross said.
Athletic upgrades at Woodman Field would include a new grandstand and pressbox (current facilities are more than 50 years old), reorienting the varsity baseball field to better fit with the track that encroaches on the outfield and installing new turf on the football field.
Some playgrounds throughout the district, roughly 15 to 30 years old, would also be replaced, Ross said.
‘We want it to be a queen’
There are so many stories in the Montclair community of parents and grandparents who attended Montclair schools entering their children’s and grandchildren’s classrooms and noticing the same problems that existed when they were young, Church said.
“It's time that we put the reality in our schools that we have in our minds of what the Montclair school system actually is,” committee member Priscilla Church said Monday. “We don't want it to be a graying princess, we want it to be a queen. We want it to be one of the top performing school districts in New Jersey.”
Community members spoke at the Monday meeting in support of the proposal and the work that has been already completed by the board.
A tax increase is better than the status quo, PTA Council President Tessie Thomas said. The PTAC endorses the proposal, she said.
“As a community, we are only as strong as our weakest link,” Thomas said. “Our infrastructure is the weakest link.”
Parent Brian Fleischer, a former business administrator for the board, also spoke in support of the proposal, but stressed the importance of holding the district accountable and continuing to ask questions. Fleischer also ran for a school board seat in January.
“We need to insist on transparency and accountability, including clear reporting to the public project schedules, costs, change orders, and impacts to students, staff and programs during construction,” Fleischer said. “We need to do that and vote yes on the referendum.”
The community also needs to “think creatively” about how to support longtime and multi-generation homeowners whose assessed home values may be inflated by time and gentrification, but whose income may be stressed by tax increases, he said. Parents need to acknowledge that some buildings would get more support than others, and that “there's a difference between equal investment and equitable investment,” he said.
The financial argument of low interest rates and the uncertain future of state reimbursement, and the practical argument for keeping public schools as a draw for families to Montclair are clear, Peter Keating, a parent and treasurer of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation, said Monday. But more than anything, there’s a moral case to the proposal, he said.
"We all benefit from the economy and the culture of Montclair, from our businesses and restaurants to our museums and parks,” Keating said. “And we have an intergenerational promise to keep which we have not been keeping — to show young people what it means to be part of the Montclair community.”
Other community members asked questions about the proposal, including considerations of historical preservation, green and renewable energy opportunities and how construction would disrupt education.
While some work would be completed during summers, it is inevitable that construction would take place during the school year and school day, Church said. But the district is already thinking about possible disruptions, considering moving middle schoolers into the high school for example, and does not plan to switch to remote instruction, she said.
The board will vote Wednesday, April 6 on the proposal, which may undergo changes and updates as the board receives feedback from the community. Board members and Ponds said this week they welcomed questions and feedback and would be posting a question and answer document on the district website.
After the vote, Parette Somjen Architects will prepare the necessary applications and drawings for the state and return everything to the district for review before submitting to the state Department of Education. It can take up to 60 days to get a preliminary response back from the state, Scherzer said.
The committee is planning for a November referendum. If the community votes in support of the referendum, Parette Somjen Architects will then draw up plans, the district will begin bidding for services and construction will be underway by summer 2023.