That plan to OK $15.5M in Montclair school repairs before the election? Time’s up
By TALIA WIENER
Today is Election Day — which means voters will decide whether Montclair is to change its type of school district, and with it, the way capital bonds for big projects are issued.
But the Montclair Board of School Estimate is still waiting to hear back from school district officials to schedule a next meeting on millions of dollars of planned HVAC work, Deputy Mayor and BoSE Chairman Bill Hurlock said.
If voters choose today to make Montclair a Type II school district (as 97% of others throughout the state already are), the Board of School Estimate will be dissolved — and the bonding process would have to start over.
That could mean waiting, at minimum, months more for the district to put a bond referendum up before voters in a special election, following the process already used in most New Jersey communities. Proponents of keeping the current system worry, as well, that tax-wary voters might tank referendums for school projects in low-turnout votes.
School officials had proposed the extensive project, part of several years worth of planned capital improvements, hoping to get ahead of the election and the possible change. Angry residents called into a recent Township Council meeting accusing Hurlock and other BoSE members of running out the clock — which he denied, saying school officials had been slow to communicate and unclear in plans they sent, causing unnecessary delays.
Montclair is a Type I district with a mayor-appointed, seven-member Board of Education and a Board of School Estimate that approves school budgets, and reviews and fixes costs for capital improvements before they go to the Township Council for bonding.
If Montclair remains a Type I district, the BoSE will continue its work on a bond plan of $15.5 million for upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning in the school district.
The HVAC project is seen as the most urgent by school leaders, struggling to address issues including coronavirus safety concerns in aging buildings. But it only represents a portion of their total request of the Board of School Estimate and Township Council. On Aug. 16, the school board sent the BoSE a formal request for $60 million in bonding. Then, when the BoSE met Sept. 30, school leaders outlined about $150 million in requested bonding, to be spread out over years — with the $15.5 million HVAC work up first.
Hurlock received a request for a BoSE meeting from the district’s business administrator, Nicholas Cipriano, the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 22, Hurlock told Montclair Local. On Monday, Oct. 25, Hurlock responded to the request with an offer for a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 4 — given that Montclair remains a Type I district, and the BoSE still has a role to play.
A meeting on Oct. 25 would not have provided time for proper notice to the public, and board members were not all available the rest of the week, Hurlock said.
Montclair public schools are closed today for Election Day and are also closed Thursday and Friday while staff members attend a New Jersey Education Association convention.
As of Tuesday, Election Day, Hurlock said he has not heard back from the district regarding the Nov. 4 meeting offer.
The district’s intention was for $15.5 million HVAC upgrades to be completed during summer 2022, but that is unlikely according to a timeline laid out by Parette Somjen Architects associate Will Ross at the Sept. 30 BoSE meeting.
According to that timeline, the so-called HVAC Phase 2 plan will take anywhere from a year to a year and a half to complete after a bond is issued, Ross said. It takes four months to design the project and create construction plans, he said. Another month or two is spent bidding and securing contractors. Next, the procurement of the materials would take upward of six months, due to COVID-19-related supply delays. Construction would then take three to four months depending on the space and scope of the specific project, Ross said.
“From what they told us at the Sept. 30 BOSE meeting, the timetable to get stuff done in the summertime had already passed,” Hurlock said. “But we are still willing to allocate money so that we can get stuff into the pipeline if you will.”
If Montclair becomes a Type II district after today’s election, the bond request would have to become a referendum. But the district wouldn’t have to wait until the next November election — the board could call for a special election, Hurlock said. The special election would be paid for by the district.
“My understanding is if there is a special need, they don't have to wait until November,” Hurlock said.
Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has not yet responded to questions sent to his district email about the bond timeline since Oct. 18.