Time could be running out to OK $15.5M HVAC work at Montclair schools
By TALIA WIENER
This story has been updated to reflect further comments made by Montclair Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock at Tuesday night's Township Council meeting. Hurlock chairs Montclair's Board of School Estimate.
A plan to bond for $15.5 million in upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in Montclair’s public schools remains stalled — and there are just two weeks before the process for bonding could be upended altogether.
That leaves questions: Can Montclair’s Board of Education, its Board of School Estimate and its Township Council all act to move the bond through before Nov. 2, when Montclair voters will consider changing the kind of school system the township has? And what happens if they’re only part of the way through the multistage process and such a change takes place?
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 instead outlined about $150 million in requested bonding, to be spread out over years — with the $15.5 million HVAC work up first.
And Bill Hurlock, Montclair’s deputy mayor as well as chairman of the BoSE, met with Township Attorney Ira Karasick, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, district Business Administrator Nicholas Cipriano and school district attorney Isabel Machado on Oct. 12 to discuss the bonding process, looking at “what can and can’t be done in the short timeline,” Hurlock said.
But more than a week after that meeting, Hurlock said, he’s still waiting on school board officials to get back to the BoSE about their assessment of the situation — something he said has been a recurring pattern of slow or no communication from the district that’s stalled the process. That’s despite school board members saying it’s the BoSE that’s caused the holdup — which the deputy mayor denies.
The decision ahead
On Nov. 2, township voters will decide if Montclair should immediately become a Type II district. Montclair currently has what’s known as a Type I school district — where the mayor appoints school board members and the Board of School Estimate sets the tax rate and budget. The BoSE, composed of members of the school board, council and the superintendent, also fixes the costs for capital improvements before sending them to the Township Council to bond for the expenses.
If Montclair becomes a Type II district, the BoSE would be immediately dissolved, and bonds for capital projects would be put before voters through referendums. The change would also establish an elected school board, add two members to the board and have future bonding based on the credit of the district rather than the township. That’s the system in most New Jersey communities.
That short time ahead introduces a novel and legally ambiguous possibility — that the BoSE could vote to OK the project before Nov. 2, then be dissolved before the Township Council bonds.
At the Oct. 12 meeting, Hurlock said, he and Karasick expressed concern over whether an approval from a no-longer-existent BoSE would have standing. Ponds and Machado said they would have to get back to Hurlock with their understanding of that process, Hurlock said.
“It’s a week later now, and I have received nothing,” Hurlock told Montclair Local Tuesday.
Ponds has not responded to questions about the bonding process sent to his district address on Monday, Oct. 18. Machado has not responded to multiple emails sent to her office Monday and Tuesday.
Karasick told Montclair Local on Monday he would “assess the status of these matters on Nov. 3 and advise accordingly, if appropriate.”
“I would say that it means that as soon as that election is certified and this becomes a Type II district, everything done to that day that’s not complete, that hasn’t been completed, just stops,” he said at the BoSE’s Sept. 30 meeting. “But I’ve talked to very wise financial people who have told me they don’t think that’s the case – they think it’s possible that the work [the BoSE is] doing right now might continue.”
Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the NJSBA is not aware of any statutes or court decisions addressing such a situation.
“It is not clear what would happen in that case,” Bamford said. “The local school district would rely on the advice of its counsel.”
The Montclair Township Council has a regular meeting scheduled for Nov. 1, the day before the election.
Differing accounts for delays
Meanwhile, Hurlock and school board members differ on details contributing to delays.
As of Tuesday, Hurlock said, the district hadn’t yet requested another BoSE meeting. The BoSE has also not received a priority breakdown of the bond request for $15.5 million in HVAC work, as it asked of the school board during the Sept. 30 meeting, Hurlock said.
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, he told the same to residents who called in to blame the council for delays. "You have put our children terribly at risk, and the only way you are being creative right now is to come up with ways to not do it, to run out the clock,” parent June Raegner said.
Hurlock said at the council meeting that he’d gotten a text from Ponds late Monday, looking to set up a meeting with him, and they set one for 10 a.m. Tuesday. School officials didn’t show up, eventually saying they were dealing with an emergency and would be there in a half-hour, he said.
“That would have been 11 this morning. It’s now 20 minutes to 8 [p.m.]. I still haven’t heard from anybody,” Hurlock said.
He described delays after the district made its original $60M request on Aug. 16, saying he didn’t receive a letter to request a BoSE meeting for another month, on Sept.17 (resulting in the Sept. 30 meeting, the only one the BoSE has held in the process so far).
The BoSE has yet to receive a request for another meeting since then, he said.
Yet Board of Education Vice President Priscilla Church, who also sits on the BoSE, told Montclair Local another meeting had been requested — and “to my knowledge there has not been a response from the BoSE.”
At Monday night’s school board meeting, Ponds and Church said the BoSE was requiring the plans for the HVAC work first be approved by the state before moving forward — but Hurlock said Tuesday both to Montclair Local and then later at the council meeting that wasn’t the case.
“Nowhere did we ever say that,” Hurlock said at the council meeting.
A state approval process “probably wouldn’t be completed until well after” the Nov. 2 election, Church said at the board meeting. She said she was “very disappointed to hear that they’re asking us to go to the state because certainly, knowing all too well, that’s a time-intensive ask. I feel that it’s a technicality.”
If Montclair becomes a Type II district and capital improvements have to go to voters instead of the BoSE and Township Council, that could mean either a costly-to-run special election or waiting until the November 2022 general election, Church said at the meeting — “so that’s another year before we get to the funding.”
Church said she hopes the BoSE can meet before the election to have another conversation about the bond request.
The board is dedicated to getting the buildings fixed, Ponds said at the Oct. 18 board meeting.
“We want to make sure that everyone knows we will march on, we will continue to move forward,” he said.
Third Ward Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams, a member of the BoSE, has not responded to multiple emails sent to her township email beginning Oct. 12. Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings, who was appointed to the BoSE in September, referred questions for this story to Hurlock. Board of Education President and BoSE member Latifah Jannah referred questions to Ponds.