By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Despite districtwide facilities issues that schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds says keep him up at night, the Montclair Board of Education won’t yet start moving ahead with plans for $17 million in heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades.

School board member Eric Scherzer said at a July 26 Board of Education meeting that’s because in November, voters will decide if Montclair should continue to have a mayor-appointed school board, or the sort of elected school board seen in most other New Jersey communities.

That change has other consequences. Montclair would cease being what’s known as a Type I school district. In Montclair’s current style of district, capital projects are approved by a separate body known as the Board of School Estimate before being sent to the Township Council to bond for them.

But in the Type II districts most communities have — and Montclair might after the November vote — school boards put bonds for major work before voters to approve directly. 

The HVAC work is being described as Phase 2 of the district’s ongoing effort to repair its ventilation systems. A fall report by engineers EI Associates identified $26 million worth of needed work, finding many rooms had no ventilation at all even as the district was struggling to arrange a return to buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Phase 1 work done so far amounts to about $1.6 million and included fixing windows and radiators and putting purifiers in rooms. Those repairs eventually made a return to a hybrid learning schedule possible, though a dispute with the Montclair Education Association over the safety of the buildings delayed plans for a return by months.

“We were informed by our partners on the Board of School Estimate that there is not enough time for us to submit a ‘Phase 2’ resolution and for the council to set up public hearings on this matter and then follow with a township resolution to finance this phase of the project,” school board Vice President Priscilla Church told Montclair Local. “The community seems to think otherwise.”

The board had intended to move forward with the full HVAC proposal but is not willing to commit about $1 million to pay an architectural firm for services related to a two-year project that “may not happen now” or “which may require various delays” due to the change in board structure, Scherzer said at the meeting. Scherzer, who was appointed to the board this year, is chair of its finance and facilities committee.

Phase 2, as envisioned, would include 15 projects in nine buildings, Church told Montclair Local. That includes HVAC work in the Buzz Aldrin Middle School auditorium and extensive work at Montclair High School for locker rooms, science rooms, dance rooms and other facilities, she said.

It would take six months to order the needed equipment for that phase, Church said, so work would start in the spring if funding were approved soon.

In place of the Phase 2 work, the Board of Education will pursue a "Phase 1.5," using an existing $2 million from federal grants to address the most pressing building concerns, Scherzer said. The district expects to hear from Parette Somjen Architects on Aug. 10 regarding its recommendations for the most urgent work, he said.  

"We are moving as quickly as possible and recognize that there's a lot of work to be done," Scherzer told Montclair Local.

The state of the district’s facilities has long been an issue. A May 17 long-range facilities plan by EI estimated that more than $57.2 million is needed for renovations at the district’s facilities overall, again identifying ventilation as the biggest issue. In 2018, a stairwell collapsed at Montclair High School, and inspections that followed found several were structurally deficient, prompting work to demolish and rebuild them. 

In February of 2020, the state Department of Health cited the district for a series of problems at Montclair High School and its George Innes Annex — some procedural, but some for facilities failings such as broken ventilators, inoperable windows and water damage to walls and ceilings. 

And Ponds, just this month, said he was preparing to bring the case for major repairs to the community. 

If Montclair voters choose a Type II district, the township will cease to have a Board of School Estimate, a separate body made up of two Board of Education members, two Township Council members and, usually, the mayor (though last year the Township Council appointed Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock in the mayor’s place). It also reviews and votes on the district budget and sets the tax levy. The board, which would also add two more members to its lineup, would hold public hearings before asking voters directly in a referendum for permission to assume debt for large projects.

The November vote creates a “timing issue,” Church said at the meeting. 

“Either way, the long-range facilities plan will get done, but we just have to wait until November to find out exactly which way it’s going to continue to proceed,” she said.

Scherzer said there were “tremendous implications for the upcoming vote in November on whether there’s an elected or an appointed school board in relation to the funding of our capital improvements. There’s a totally different path the school district has to take upon itself to raise the money.”

The time needed for the approval of a capital improvement project exceeds the remaining time before the November election, Hurlock told Montclair Local. Hurlock has served on the Board of School Estimate for nine years and is currently its chair.

“It’s unrealistic for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that the Board of Ed would have to get approvals from relevant state agencies before it can even go to the Board of School Estimate,” he said.

Depending on the specific project, the district might need to seek approvals from both state and county agencies, such as the Department of Education, to move forward. The approvals vary from project to project, Hurlock said, but when combined with the time it takes for a Board of Education resolution, the required two Board of School Estimate hearings before an additional meeting for the vote and a Township Council meeting, November will have come and gone. 

“It’s physically impossible,” he said. 

But former Montclair Public Schools Business Administrator Brian Fleischer said he thinks there is enough time for the township to approve and execute a bond, as long as “all parties are sufficiently motivated to make it happen.”

“We’ve had painfully little consensus across stakeholders in this community on education matters, but one thing that the district administration, the BOE, the staff and their union leadership, the public school families and other community leaders all seem to agree upon wholeheartedly is that there is a critical need to invest in our school facilities, particularly but not exclusively with respect to our ventilation systems,” Fleischer told Montclair Local. 

Fleischer, who served in the position from 2013 to 2016, has two children in the district.

The board can also seek the county and state approvals after receiving Board of School Estimate authorization, he said. 

At a July 14 school board “retreat” meeting, Ponds spoke about the urgent need for building repairs, and said he was losing sleep over the issue. But at the July 26 meeting, Ponds said there is a short-term plan in place and buildings are safe for students returning in the fall.

“None of the engineering reports that I’ve read said our buildings were not at all safe to come into,” he said. “Though we have to make repairs.”

“Years and years” of stories about school building disrepair — plaster falling on people in classrooms, hot classrooms, the stair collapse at MHS — have made students feel unsafe, parent Kristin Wald said at the July 26 meeting. Wald has one child at Renaissance at Rand Middle School and one child at Montclair High School. 

“This is all because we’ve been putting things off as a community for many, many years, and we really don't have anyone but ourselves to blame as a full community,” she said. “We hate taxes, we hate spending money, but now we’re in a position where we need to do that.”