Montclair schools now eyeing a more than $15M bonding measure
By TALIA WIENER
The Montclair Board of Education is in “a race against time” as members prepare for a capital improvement bond measure that’s shaping up to be larger than anticipated.
How much bigger is an open question.
The board’s 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 Architects and school principals, Scherzer said Monday at a board meeting.
In February, Scherzer said the committee wanted the bond to include all items that are considered “Phase 2” of HVAC upgrades — $15 million in fixes laid out in a master plan by Parette Somjen Architects. Phase 2 includes projects in nine of the district’s buildings. The committee also asked Ponds and principals to recommend upgrades to make educational advancements in classrooms.
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 Ponds.
But the board also asked Parette Somjen Architects to evaluate all major structural issues not included in Phase 2. And despite plans to focus on ventilation upgrades first and hold off on other fixes, the committee now feels it is important to push for upgrades in all areas, Scherzer said Monday.
He cited three reasons for the expansion: building issues are causing problems every day and the disruption and expense will only continue to increase over time, interest rates are increasing and are predicted to continue to rise, and currently reimbursement from the state would be between 30% and 40% but it is unknown how long that funding will last.
“Children can't learn and teachers can't teach if the structure is going to deteriorate around them,” Scherzer said. “We're in a race against time.”
After walk-throughs of each building with Ponds and school principals, Parette Somjen identified hundreds of structural items that needed to be addressed, Scherzer said Monday. Officials also identified many educational advancement opportunities, he said.
The district’s newer schools, such as the Charles H. Bullock School, built in 2010, had short lists of items to be addressed, a dozen or so, Scherzer said. But the older facilities had significantly more. At Glenfield Middle School, Parette Somjen identified more than 40 items that needed work.
While some of the fixes can be addressed by a comprehensive maintenance schedule, many cannot, Scherzer said. Critical fixes include upgrading ventilation systems, replacing 40- to 60-year-old roofs and boilers and replacing aging stairway foundations, he said.
“Our schools are not in the best shape,” he said. “We’ve been saying it for months but this comprehensive look has really brought it home.”
The bond proposal will not be able to address all the needs and desires at once — “it's just too expensive,” Scherzer said. But the committee is working to incorporate as much as possible, he said. He did not provide a cost estimate for the proposed work.
And whatever makes the final cut isn’t just being determined by the board members, Monk Inyang, also a member of the finance and facilities committee, said Monday.
“It's not just the people in this room who are coming out and saying this is what we think is important,” Inyang said. “It's what the principals who have been in those schools, who will continue to be in those schools for years, have recommended as being the most pressing needs.”
The board expects there to be “many opinions” on the proposal, Scherzer said. But the members are trying to create the proper balance, he said.
“At the end of the day, we hope and trust that whatever side you have been on in any political issues in town, that you will rally behind this effort,” he said. “It's too important not to have support from all stakeholders.”
On Monday, March 28, the board will hold a special community meeting to present its plan for a referendum to support its long-range facilities plan. The presentation will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the George Inness Annex of Montclair High School, at 141 Park St.
Applications for the bond projects must be submitted to the state Department of Education by May 5 in order to place a question on the November ballot, but the board is not yet locked into November as an election date, members said in February.
Preparing a bond referendum measure 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.
If the 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.
In a Tuesday press release, the board encouraged residents and town officials to attend the meeting to learn about the proposal and hear what renovations could mean for the schools.
“The finance and facilities committee and the full board are eager to get the input of the community on this proposal before making final decisions on exactly which items should be included,” the release says. “The improvements that can be made with approval of this bond referendum are the backbone of assuring that Montclair maintains the excellence expected of its school community, and all points of view are welcome.”
Questions from the public will be taken both in person and virtually during the special meeting, according to the release.
The finance and facilities committee will present a final comprehensive proposal at the April 6 board meeting, Scherzer said.
School board members had hoped to get a facilities bond approved by the now-disbanded Board of School Estimate and then the Township Council last fall — the process for a Type I school district, as Montclair had been at the time. 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 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.