Montclair school district leaders continue to stress the importance of bond referendum
Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said he was nervous before walking into yet another information session for the upcoming $187.7 million bond referendum on Thursday evening.
“I’m nervous because it’s going to cost, it’s going to raise taxes,” Ponds said. “But I'm here to also say that we need it, and I wouldn't ask for it if we didn’t need it.”
Ponds joined Montclair school board members and community stakeholders Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Wally Choice Community Center during a referendum information session hosted by the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Montclair African American Clergy Association.
On Nov. 8, Montclair voters will be asked to support a $187.7 million bond referendum measure to pay for repairs and upgrades in Montclair schools. Including work in all 11 of the district's schools, 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 Oct. 6 event began as voting in special elections for 11 school bond referendums in districts around the state came to a close. In 10 of the districts, voters approved the bonds. One district remains undecided as of Friday, Oct. 7.
The largest referendum ask, by the Cherry Hill School District, totaled $364 million, $133 million of which would be covered by state aid. It passed — with 69% of the 12,945 voters in support and 31% of them against. In 2018, Cherry Hill voters rejected a $210.7 million proposal from the school district.
The average referendum ask in the 11 districts was about $55 million. Other districts that approved bonds Thursday include Greater Egg Harbor Regional, Northvale, Mansfield, Sayreville, Little Silver, Shrewsbury, East Hanover, Watchung Hill Regional High School and Kenilworth.
Wallington’s vote remains undecided, with the Bergen County election’s website reporting unofficial results Friday that show a perfect tie, 269 votes in favor and 269 against the measure.
During the information session, with fewer than 10 people in the audience, board members and Ponds again made their argument for the bonds. However, as the superintendent and members of the board, they are supposed to remain neutral, simply educating voters on the upcoming referendum, according to the New Jersey School Board Association. Board members and Ponds have repeatedly acknowledged this neutrality, encouraging people to get out and vote but not telling them which way to vote.
For Ponds, who is nearing the middle of his third year as superintendent, much of his tenure has been spent dealing with crumbling buildings, he said. With COVID-19 revealing the shortcomings of the district’s ventilation and HVAC systems, flooding from Hurricane Ida entering three of the district's school buildings and pipes bursting at Glenfield Middle School when the temperature drops, the aging infrastructure has repeatedly fallen short.
This was all an issue long before Ponds arrived in the district, Priscilla Church, board vice president, said at the Oct. 6 event.
“It's been decades of just reacting to fixing what has to be fixed,” Church said.
And without completing the work in the referendum, the district’s infrastructure problems will not just go away. The average age of a Montclair school building is 99 years old, and when Charles H. Bullock School, built only 12 years ago, is excluded from the count, the average age jumps to 107 years old. The district's oldest school, Glenfield, is 127 years old.
With climate change and increasing storm severity, the school buildings will only continue to show “their weak points,” Church said.
The state Department of Education has agreed to cover 31% of the bond cost, about $58.5 million, to be provided in the form of debt service aid. This level of support from the state showed that the Department of Education “recognized the urgency and merit of our plan,” board president Latifah Jannah said at the Oct. 6 event. The state will also cover 31% of the bond interest.
The 10 school districts where voters approved bond measures Oct. 6 will receive a total of $214 million in state funding.
For every 69 cents spent by the district, the state will put in 31 cents, Eric Scherzer, board member and chair of the finance and facilities committee, said at the Oct. 6 information session. There is no guarantee that the state would provide that level of support in the future if voters said no to the November referendum question and the district proposed another set of bonds, he said.
While much of the conversation around the referendum focuses on the proposed improvements to building safety and infrastructure – $105 million of the proposal is going to structural maintenance repairs – another large component of the proposed work is focused on moving Montclair classrooms into the 21st century.
And that component cannot be overlooked, Church said at the Oct. 6 event.
“Not every child in Montclair graduates from Montclair and goes off to college,” Church said. “We should be able to train our students that on the day after graduation, every one of them has a skill set, wherever they desire, wherever their interest level is, their expertise, to go out into the world and to be successful.”
To do that, the Montclair district needs to make changes to its buildings, she said. The referendum includes many classroom upgrades at Montclair High School, including renovations to the auto shop, wood shop, food science room and others.
“Absolutely we want equity for all of our children,” Church said. “We should have in this community the absolute ultimate opportunity for every one of them, and this bond referendum is going to give us that opportunity.”
With projects slated for every school, the Rev. Robert C. Coles, pastor at Petra Baptist Church, asked how the district would ensure equity in the rollout of its proposed projects.
The work will be completed in stages, the exact order of which has yet to be decided, Scherzer said.
But the board does plan on prioritizing the oldest schools, he said.
“We are certainly going to ensure that the schools that need it most are addressed as early in the process as we possibly can,” Scherzer said.
The district will also hire a construction manager to oversee the six years of work and ensure that students and classrooms are not disturbed. Some work will have to take place over the summer, on holiday breaks or weekends, but some can be completed while students are in the school buildings. Projects are expected to be completed by 2029, according to a March presentation by the district architect.
For PTA Council President Tessie Thomas, a staunch supporter of the referendum proposal, the next month will be about convincing voters to support it as well.
“We as citizens have two choices,” Thomas said Oct. 6. “Unpredictable, large tax increases as we try to fix the schools as we go or least amount of predictable tax increase under a methodical plan for projects.”
Thomas, along with more than 100 PTA volunteers, is working to raise awareness of the upcoming vote and explain why the residents should support it. Part of that effort has been turning the PTA website into a referendum information hub with distilled information points, frequently asked questions and answers and information on how to vote. The volunteers will also help to register voters, write emails and letters in support of the referendum, host informal informational sessions in their homes, drive voters to the polls, make phone calls and more.
Starting this week, the PTA will also be distributing hundreds of lawn signs that show support for the referendum question. The blue lawn signs can be requested for free on the PTA website.
“At PTAC our message is very simple — it's about time, let’s get it done,” Thomas said.
The district will host its second town hall Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. at Glenfield Middle School. Community groups will also be hosting additional information sessions about the referendum throughout October.
Questions about the referendum can be sent to MPSBondRef22@montclair.k12.nj.us.