When the Montclair Board of Education shared a proposal for $190 million worth of capital improvement work last week, members said they’ll need broad community buy-in. The plan depends on voters approving three bonds over the next five years, and the typical homeowner taking on hundreds of dollars in new taxes.

Some community leaders have already offered their unconditional support, while others are awaiting additional details.

“[The proposal] cannot pass as a Board of Education proposal,” Eric Scherzer, chair of the board’s facilities and finance committee, said at a meeting March 28. “It needs to be a community proposal, and it needs the support of all of the diverse elements of this community.”

Board members were expected to formally present the proposal at a meeting April 6, after Montclair Local’s print deadline for this week. Specific details and cost estimates discussed last week were still subject to change until then. See MontclairLocal.news for updates.

The Montclair Board of Education is asking for community support as it moves forward with a proposal for three capital improvement bonds over the next five years, totaling $190 million. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FILE PHOTO)
The Montclair Board of Education is asking for community support as it moves forward with a proposal for three capital improvement bonds over the next five years, totaling $190 million. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FILE PHOTO)

The proposal is separated into two categories — infrastructure and educational enhancements — and broken up into several project types. Among them, upgrades to the district’s aging HVAC systems are the most expensive — totaling $77 million. State aid would cover an estimated 28% to 34% of the total proposal cost, board officials have said. But if voters approved all three bonds, the tax impact to the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $628,000 would ultimately reach an estimated $870 per year by the fifth year, according to the March 28 presentation.

The Montclair branch of the NAACP supports the proposal, according to a joint statement made Tuesday by NAACP President Roger Terry and Diane Tyree-Anglin, chair of the NAACP’s education committee.

“Many people are concerned about their taxes being increased, which will happen, but without a strong school system, the long-term future of Montclair is in jeopardy,” the statement says.

And avoiding the repairs means risking paying on an emergency basis later, it says. 

“We believe that education is a civil rights issue,” the statement says. “Montclair's infrastructure needs assistance to make our schools safe for our students, faculty and staff.”

The educational facilities for Montclair students require updates to provide the best experience for students and staff, the NAACP statement said, and the group pledged to work with the board and community partners to mobilize voters in support of the referendum, the statement says. 

Councilman Bob Russo said Monday he will support the referendum, though exact details are still being discussed. 

“We can not kick the can down the road,” Russo said. “We either pay now or pay later.”

Montclair must support its students, educators and parents, providing them with what they need for success, Mayor Sean Spiller said Monday. But he did not directly endorse the proposal. 

“It's no secret that the physical infrastructure of our school district is in need of significant capital improvements,” Spiller said. “Exactly how we choose to address these needs — a balance of needed infrastructure repairs, improvements, and basic maintenance with affordability and sustainability — is something our board of education and ultimately the voters will decide.”

The proposal offers a “once-in-a-generation investment in our crumbling schools,” Councilman Peter Yacobellis said late last month. But the referendum does need to be carefully reviewed and understood, he said. 

“We can’t change the past but we can shape the future, and I believe that the Montclair school district’s best days are ahead if we choose to pursue some version of [the proposal],” Yacobellis said. “Our fate as a town is intrinsically linked to the quality of our public education system.”

Yacobellis has been a proponent of making significant capital investments to facilities including Montclair schools soon, arguing interest rates and building costs will rise.  

The Montclair Education Association has long been a proponent of ventilation repairs, but is not yet ready to support the proposal, union President Cathy Kondreck said Tuesday.

“We are hoping that the detailed plans will be provided to us in the coming weeks so that we can explicitly support the long-range facilities plan,” Kondreck said. “We stand behind the need for the health and safety of staff and students to be our priority.”

In February 2021, the Montclair Board of Education filed a lawsuit against the Montclair Education Association after members refused to return for a hybrid learning schedule that January; Montclair schools had been entirely remote for the school year up to that point. The union contended the district hadn’t demonstrated facilities were safe enough from the coronavirus, particularly noting the aging ventilation systems. A settlement was reached in March 2021, and students began returning on a staggered schedule April 12 of that year, with some older students not in classrooms until nearly the end of the school year. 

The planned repairs and updates, as described by the board, include boiler replacements, electrical service upgrades, roof replacements, practical and performing arts facility upgrades, gymnasium renovations, science and classroom upgrades, technology upgrades, special education upgrades, athletic facility and playground upgrades.

Newly elected Montclair Board of Education member Phaedra Dunn, scheduled to be sworn in at the Wednesday board meeting, declined to comment. The other new board member to be sworn in Wednesday, Melanie Deysher, has not yet responded to emails sent to her personal address sent March 30 asking for her thoughts on the proposal. 

Council members Lori Price Abrams, David Cummings and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock have not yet responded to emails sent to their township addresses since March 30 asking for their thoughts on the proposal. 

Councilwoman Robin Schlager Schlager declined to comment. She is also a secretary in the school district.

Hurlock had been chair of the now-disbanded Montclair Board of School Estimate. That body was previously responsible for fixing costs for school bonds before sending them to the Township Council for approval. But voters in November decided in a referendum to convert Montclair from a type I district with a mayor-appointed school board to the more common type II structure, with an elected board. As part of that change, capital improvement bonds now go to voters to improve in referendums, not to the BoSE and council.

The projects being proposed by the board would be the first to go before voters, under the new structure.