By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair Board of Education members continue to plan for a capital improvement bond referendum at the end of the year, hoping Montclair voters will support work that would include $15.5 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades across the school district. 

But the bond put before voters might ultimately include work beyond that as well, board members said at a meeting Feb. 2.

The board’s facilities and finance committee wants the bond to include all items that are considered in “Phase 2” of the HVAC upgrades laid out in a master plan by Parette Somjen Architects, committee chair Eric Scherzer said. Phase 2 includes projects in nine of the district's buildings. 

“We do have beautiful, beautiful buildings in town, but it's important for us to realize that as beautiful as they are, if you really look at them closely, they are beginning to bend under the wear,” board Vice President Priscilla Church said. “The opportunity that's in front of us is absolutely phenomenal.” 

Phase 1 of the district’s HVAC upgrades, the installation of mechanical ventilation in 66 district classrooms that did not previously have it, was completed in January, according to a community message from schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds

The board also approved a $90,000 supplemental agreement with Parette Somjen Architects at its meeting. Under the agreement, the firm will complete and submit the bond project applications to the New Jersey Department of Education for the district’s buildings. 

Applications for the bond projects must be submitted to the state Department of Education by May 5 in order to place a referendum on the November ballot, Scherzer said Wednesday. Preparing a bond referendum usually takes about six months, and includes required steps such as an application to and review by the state Department of Education, and a formal notice to the county Board of Elections. 

But the board is not locked into the November election date, Church said Wednesday. She is also a member of the facilities and finance committee. If the bond referendum were held in November, it would take place alongside an already scheduled regular election for three board seats. Otherwise, the district would have to hold a special election, at further expense.

“We have specific timelines right now that we're trying to meet, but we are open because we want to do the right job,” Church. “We want our kids to walk into nothing but the best as far as the buildings and the structures are concerned.”

Bond referendums can only legally be scheduled at certain times of the year. A bond referendum can go to voters the second Tuesday in December, the fourth Tuesday in January, the second Tuesday in March, the last Tuesday in September or during the board’s general election on the first Tuesday in November, according to Charlene Peterson, Essex County representative for the New Jersey School Boards Association. 

The board has also asked Parette Somjen Architects to evaluate all major structural issues not included in Phase 2 — areas that need to be addressed in the next two to three years and cannot be covered by routine maintenance, Scherzer said Wednesday. Up to 100 issues across the district, including boiler and roof replacements, have been discussed, he said.

Montclair school district facilities have been neglected and need extensive work, Scherzer said Wednesday. In addition to HVAC Phase 1 and 2, the master plan identified $37 million in high priority projects, along with over $95 million in future projects.

“It's not a question of assessing blame,” Scherzer said. “But some of these items are things that we must deal with because if we don't deal with them, we end up having worse problems.”

The finance and facilities committee met with representatives of the Montclair PTA Council Tuesday, getting feedback on how and when to structure a bond issue and what the bond should include. 

“We found that community perspective very useful and helpful,” Scherzer said. “Over the next period of time, we'll be looking for ways to get more input because these are important decisions.” 

The committee also asked Ponds about educational advancements that could potentially be addressed through the bond issue, Scherzer said. 

The board approved a bond counsel contract with firm McManimon, Scotland and Baumann in January. The next meeting of the facilities and finance committee is Monday, Feb. 7.

School board members hoped to get a facilities bond approved by the now-disbanded Board of School Estimate and then the Township Council last fall, when Montclair was still a Type I school district. But time ran out before voters, in November, approved a change to a Type II district — replacing mayoral appointment to the board with elections, adding two new members, eliminating the BoSE and making bonds subject to public referendums. Board members and BoSE members each at times said they were waiting to hear from the other body, delaying talks until the change in school district type rendered them moot.