Parents question why Montclair schools referendum projects were not tackled earlier
(KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
The Montclair school district will present voters with an $187.7 million bond referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot, covering repairs and upgrades at every school in the district.
District administrators and Montclair Board of Education members have described this work as “a dire need” and that without the passage of the referendum, students and staff may face “serious risks.”
But during a district-sponsored town hall Thursday, parents questioned why the work had not been done earlier, if the district knew of the school building ages and failing systems.
About 30 people gathered in the Montclair High School auditorium for the town hall, featuring presentations by schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, school board members, Andrea L. Kahn, the district’s bond attorney, and Will Ross, the lead architect on the proposal. The majority of the event was reserved for questions from community members. The event was also streamed on TV34 and a recording is posted on the station's YouTube page.
For parent Louis Gagnon, who said he had trusted that things were being taken care of in the district, the bond referendum signaled that he had been wrong.
“That is on me, I was not a good citizen in that way,” said Gagnon, who has not previously attended school board meetings.
And while Gagnon said he recognizes work needs to be done in the district, he is left with questions about how the district has landed here, in need of $187.7 million of work, he said at the town hall — why was there not better management, how was infrastructure neglected for so long, why doesn’t the district admit it made a mistake?
“This is not an investment in our future, this is fixing something that’s awfully broken,” Gagnon said. “It sounds like a catastrophe if we get there and it’s a no.”
Referendum stakeholders have been referring to the proposal as the “community investment bond.”
Parent Christina Joseph Robinson said that while sitting in the high school auditorium seats during the town hall, she was transported back to when she and her husband sat in the same seats as high schoolers, hearing and feeling the same squeaky cushion springs.
Gagnon and Robinson are far from the first people to point out the lack of upgrades in the district schools. Priscilla Church, board vice president, said during the town hall that as a board member she entered schools and classrooms that had not changed since her daughter was a student in the 1990s. And during a Sept. 28 referendum information session hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and the Montclair branch of the NAACP, board president Latifah Jannah said not much has changed in the buildings since she and her children attended Montclair schools.
But the lack of change is not exactly because of a lack of trying, Eric Scherzer, board member and chair of the board’s finance and facilities committee, said at the town hall. Scherzer was appointed to the board by Mayor Sean Spiller in April 2021.
Church and Jannah brought a proposal to the Board of School Estimate last fall, the body that under a Type I school district is responsible for approving school budgets, and reviewing and fixing costs for capital improvements before they go to the Township Council for bonding.
But the Board of School Estimate did not act on the proposal before the November election, when Montclair voters approved changing the district from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed board of education to a Type II system with an elected one. The change also meant the Board of School Estimate would be dissolved, leaving the school board to put bonds directly to voters in general or special elections, as they will do in November.
When Ponds entered the district in 2020, he discovered there had been discussions about repairing and upgrading schools in the district, he said at the town hall. But it has taken tipping points, such as the collapsed stairwell at Montclair High School in 2018 and the COVID pandemic, to really show how much work needs to be done and how urgent the situation really is, he said.
While the district is laying out the facts of the referendum, making it clear why the buildings need support, it remains unclear what system or body is going to ensure that taxes won’t undergo additional increases while residents are already locked into the referendum costs, Gagnon said.
“I don’t know when that ends,” Gagnon said. “If I’m not reassured that there is a system that’s effectively covering for capital expenses then I don’t know that I’m confident.”
The district intends to issue three tranches of bonds, in 2023, 2025 and 2027. And each bond would be paid over a 20-year period, meaning the repayments will be complete in 2047.
Based on the average assessment of a home in Montclair of $628,952, “the average annual tax impact over the 24-year course of repaying the bonds is expected to be $732, beginning with an expected $258 increase in 2023,” according to a referendum Q&A posted to the district website.
The second bond impact is estimated to be $311 and the third to be $281, Kahn said at the town hall.
“What you’re putting me through as a taxpayer is a bit of trauma,” Gagnon said.
Church, who alongside Jannah was appointed to the board in 2018, said one of the main reasons the district has not previously undertaken a bond proposal of this kind is exactly Gagnon’s concern — do residents really want to agree to a tax increase when it’s unclear how much township or county taxes will also increase? The Township has been “paralyzed” by it, she said.
Jannah did not comment at the town hall about why the district has not pursued a large bond issue earlier.
But community members need to understand that if the referendum isn’t passed, the district will be left paying continually increasing maintenance and Band-Aid style repair costs, parent Andrew Gideon said.
Gideon, who has older children in the district that will have graduated by the time the referendum work would be completed, said he’s seen what’s been going on in the district for several years.
“I am sorry that we did not do this sooner, when interest rates were more favorable for us,” Gideon said. “However, as pointed out, if we don’t do this work now, we’ll likely regret it for yet another reason.”
Continuing maintenance and high insurance costs could cut into the district's operating budget, Gideon said. He asked that the district share the cost savings from the bond referendum fixes — new boilers that won’t need constant repairs, new roofs that will better insulate school buildings and maintain temperatures.
For everyone in town, those with children in the district, those who rely on the business of students, those who employ students or anyone who knows a student, the cost of the referendum is worth it, said Amy Gideon, who is married to Andrew Gideon.
During the first year of the bond, the cost for the average Montclair homeowner will equal out to about 70 cents each day, Amy Gideon said. At the height of the bond costs, the average taxpayer will be paying about $2 each day.
“If our school systems go down, our community will decay,” she said.
The cost per day would be less than a cup of coffee, Scherzer added.
The district will host another 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.
CORRECTION: A quote attribution was added for the paragraph beginning "While the district is laying out the facts of the referendum..."