Montclair voters overwhelmingly back $187.7 million investment in schools
On Tuesday, Montclair voters overwhelmingly approved the largest investment in its schools in the township’s history, $187.7 million, promising relief to a school system that for decades has relied on Band-Aid fixes to its aging buildings.
In unofficial results reported by the Essex County Clerk's office at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, 11,153 voters backed the referendum question — 84.01% of the vote tallied to that point. Just 2,123 opted against the measure.
That count reflects 95.12% of Montclair districts, and includes early voting and mail-in ballots.
Turn out is similar to that of the November 2021 election, where voters also faced a referendum question — adopt an elected school board or continue with one appointed by the mayor. 13,819 Montclair residents voted on the matter — 9,757 in support and 4,062 against.
While votes from 2 of Montclair's 41 districts have not yet been reported, the county clerk's website shows 13,276 votes cast in Tuesday's referendum.
Christopher J. Durkin, Essex County Clerk, has not yet responded to an email sent Wednesday morning asking about the vote count delay.
Generations of students, families, faculty and staff have coped with deteriorating conditions, sometimes coming to learn and teach at their peril. But with the passing of the referendum measure, Montclair will receive an infusion of funds to renovate and modernize across the school district — an undertaking that is expected to take six years to complete.
The money bonanza has the potential to do nothing less than transform the classroom experience, bringing modern touches and basic repairs to spaces that had long fallen into neglect and grown outdated. More than $50 million will be targeted to refurbishing everything from science labs to wood shop rooms to libraries to auditoriums.
In a Wednesday morning press release, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the support for the referendum is "tremendously gratifying."
“We know high-quality learning spaces boost academic performance and convey to young people that we value their well-being and their future," Ponds said in the release. "Bright new classrooms and state-of-the-art learning technology will strengthen school climates and provide our educators with the educational tools they and our students have long deserved.”
Latifah Jannah, Montclair Board of Education president, said the win was "thrilling news" and "a wonderful moment for the town."
“Voters decided last year that they and not town officials should have the final say on school bond proposals," Jannah said in the release. "They exercised that new right by overwhelmingly supporting a once-in-a-generation referendum that will literally transform Montclair public schools."
She also thanked the state for its support.
Eric Scherzer, chair of the finance and facilities committee, said the board is "focused on providing the level of oversight and accountability voters expect."
“It’s very encouraging that a number of highly accomplished area builders and large-scale project managers have already volunteered to advise the board in selecting a construction manager," Scherzer said in the release. "Going forward, we will also convene a committee of community stakeholders to advise on the plan and monitor its status.”
While Ponds and members of the Montclair Board of Education were required to remain impartial before the election, community groups and local leaders backed the referendum question, holding forums and urging residents to vote yes.
"Our community made it clear with our vote — what we value, what our culture is and how to make smart decisions," PTA Council President Tessie Thomas said Wednesday morning. "Montclair decided to snap out of the unsustainable thesis that the quality of schools doesn’t have an impact on the quality of the town."
The PTA Council ran the referendum campaign over the past few months, working with over 100 volunteers to spread information about the measure and convince voters to support it. The group hosted information sessions, created a website about the referendum, distributed lawn signs and fliers, and tabled at events around town.
“It was great to see dedicated volunteers step up, put in long hours and give it their all," Thomas said.
All Thomas was feeling Wednesday was "incredible gratitude" for being part of the Montclair community and for the volunteers who supported the referendum campaign, she said.
"At the end of the day, with our strong belief in Montclair, our only focus was to get the information out," Thomas said. "Our community came through and did right by our children and our town."
This “once-in-a-generation” investment has been put off for too long, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said Wednesday morning.
"For too long the physical plant of Montclair Public Schools has been neglected, and it seemed like political inertia was just the way things were ," Yacobellis said. “No longer. Like with last year’s switch to an elected school board, this is another crystal clear indication that Montclair voters are taking the fate of the district into their own hands."
Yacobellis thanked taxpayers, especially those like him without children in the school district, and applauded the work of the Montclair PTA Council and “the courage of the Montclair Board of Education for pushing for this bond.”
With the average age of its schools at 99 years, the Montclair school district says, the investment will go to all 11 of the district’s schools — including Glenfield Middle School, built in 1896 — as well as the Montclair Community Pre-K building, Woodman Field, and the administration building.
The problems in the antiquated buildings have long posed hazards. A collapsed stairwell at Montclair High School in 2018 left students, staff and the community wondering what was going to crumble next. The aging boilers have struggled to heat the poorly-insulated buildings, with classroom temperatures dipping into the 40s and 50s, according to the Montclair Education Association. Dark classrooms, out-of-date technology, and squeaky auditorium seats have become the standard.
During the past few years, with the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida, the vulnerability of the aged buildings and the potential for disaster have multiplied. Montclair teachers refused to return to in-person instruction in 2021, arguing that the decades-old and dysfunctional ventilation systems made them unsafe. Parents and community members voiced concern, asking for additional air purifiers in classrooms. Three schools experienced severe flooding from Hurricane Ida, leaving lasting damage.
“It's been decades of just reacting to fixing what has to be fixed,” Priscilla Church, Montclair Board of Education vice president, said last month.
With climate change and increasing storm severity, the school buildings will only continue to show “their weak points,” Church said.
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
Seeing the myriad projects to fruition requires a financial blueprint stretching to 2047. The district will issue bonds three times over the next five years, in 2023, 2025 and 2027, 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 pay about $2 each day. These numbers are based on the average assessment of a home in Montclair of $628,952
Residents can learn how much the referendum will cost them by visiting PTA Council’s website to access a tax calculator.
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. The state will also cover 31% of the bond interest.
The projects, forming a zigzag sprawl across Montclair, are separated into two categories — infrastructure and educational enhancements — and broken up into 11 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.
HVAC upgrades, totaling $75.7 million, will 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 will also be installed in all schools.
Boiler replacements alone will cost $9.5 million. The average age of a boiler in the district is 30 years, but some systems are up to 70 years old, the district architect said earlier this year.
Bradford, Buzz Aldrin, Edgemont, George Inness, MHS, Nishuane, Northeast, Renaissance and Watchung will all receive new boilers.
Electrical services upgrades, required to handle the increased power load from air conditioning and technology upgrades that are also part of the proposal, will total $3.1 million. Bradford, Buzz Aldrin, Glenfield, Hillside, Montclair High School’s main building and George Inness Annex, Nishuane, Renaissance and Watchung will all benefit from the electrical upgrades.
Partial and full roof replacements will total $9.4 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 $6.6 million, include staircase projects, site drainage, clocks, intercom systems and security systems across the district.
Classroom upgrades will total $26.9 million, with upgrades to ceilings and lighting and the addition of flexible furniture.
Technology upgrades for classrooms will total $7.4 million, including a TV studio renovation at the high school, a makerspace at Hillside, and a new greenhouse at Bullock. The upgrades also include interactive touchscreen displays at every school, instead of projectors.
Special education upgrades will total $2.9 million, including ceiling and lighting upgrades, the creation of a sensory room at Nishuane, a new elevator at Watchung and more.
Practical and performing arts facilities upgrades will total $23.3 million, with upgrades to ceilings, lightings, furniture and other facilities. The auditorium at MHS will be completely overhauled, at a cost of $8.1 million, with a rehauling of lighting, sound and video systems and seating. Hillside, Buzz Aldrin, Nishuane and Edgemont will also see their auditoriums upgraded.
Arts and athletics will also get a significant boost.
Music rooms will get sound improvements and furniture upgrades, among other benefits.
The culinary arts classroom, damaged during flooding from Hurricane Ida, will receive a new ceiling, lighting, finishes and state-of-the-art equipment. The industrial art classroom will receive electrical upgrades, emergency shut off switches for electrical equipment, lighting and other upgrades.
Gymnasium renovations will run to $8.4 million, including upgrades to sports flooring, equipment and scoreboards. Athletic facility and playground upgrades will total $14.4 million. The proposal includes five new playgrounds and field upgrades.
Athletic upgrades at Woodman Field will include a new grandstand, reorienting the varsity baseball field to better fit with the track that encroaches on the outfield and installing new turf on the football field.
Now that the residents of Montclair have approved the $187.7 million, the district will hire a construction management company to oversee the entire undertaking. Once the construction manager is on board, the mapping out of the projects begins — when and where work can be done, how long materials will take to arrive, and the selection of contractors
The plan is to 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 buildings. The entire enterprise is expected to be completed by 2029, according to a March presentation by the district architect.
Should material or labor costs end up higher than anticipated, and the district finds itself without the funds to execute every project enumerated in the bond referendum project list, the board “would have to make some difficult choices,” Andrea L. Kahn, the district’s bond attorney, said at an October town hall.
Because the school district is permitted to spend only the amount of money that has been approved by voters, the board would discuss how best to deliver the promised projects, she said. The district does have “flexibility in substituting materials and designs,” Kahn said.
Should costs run lower than expected and there is money left over, the district would be obligated to pay down the principal of the project at the earliest possible time, Kahn said.
At referendum forums and school board meetings over the past few months, concerns over the transparency of the work have emerged. In response, district leaders have spoken about their plan for sharing information and holding contractors and others accountable and to the schedule.
The district will regularly update its website with presentations, requests for proposals, bid advertisements, project manuals, construction manager weekly reports and photos before, during and after the repairs and upgrades, business administrator Christina Hunt said at an Oct. 17 Board of Education meeting. The finance and facilities committee will provide updates, and the district is considering forming a volunteer accountability group to also monitor project progress and transparency.
In an effort to continue community involvement in the process, the district has already assembled a volunteer group with expertise in the fields of construction and large-scale project planning to assist in choosing a construction management firm.