By TALIA WIENER and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
wiener@montclairlocal.news
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Just over two weeks ago, the new head of the Montclair School Board of Education’s finance committee told residents: Yes, major facilities work is needed to make Montclair schools safe and structurally stable for the long-term. But no, we’re not ready to move ahead with $17 million of work to ventilation and other systems.

But Councilman Peter Yacobellis argues that shouldn’t be the final word, and fellow Councilman Bob Russo says he thinks “waiting is no longer an option.” Brian Fleischer, a Montclair parent and the district’s chief operating officer from 2013 to 2016, said he’s had conversations that suggest the door to moving ahead could still be open.

Montclair — for now — is what’s known as a Type I district. In such a district, a school board first passes a resolution to identify a capital project and gets cost estimates. Another body called the Board of School Estimate passes its own resolution, setting the amount to be raised in the bond. And then the Township Council introduces and adopts a bond ordinance over the course of at least two meetings.

In all, the process could take a few months — but Yacobellis argues that with specially scheduled meetings and enough will, it could be done in weeks.

And the timing is key, because come November, voters in Montclair will decide whether the school system should immediately become a Type II district. That would establish an elected school board instead of the mayor-appointed kind in place now, dissolve the Board of School Estimate and put bonds for capital projects before voters through referendum, instead of before the township council.

On July 26, school board finance committee chair Eric Scherzer said officials weren’t ready to move ahead with $1 million in design work for a multi-million-dollar capital project with uncertainty lingering — the possibility the entire process could change. This week, he referred follow-up questions to the district’s administration, but Superintendent Jonathan Ponds hasn’t yet returned messages from Montclair Local over the last several days.

Yacobellis — who has for months urged the district to send the council an ambitious project to approve — said he believes a bond could be issued well before November. And even if it can’t, he argues, it’s worth moving ahead with design work and getting steps in motion. He said he’d want to know if the council could even consider an emergency designation that would let it fast-track implementation of a bond ordinance.

“What we can advance, we should,” Yacobellis told Montclair Local. “We certainly shouldn't let the calendar be an excuse.”

Councilman Russo said he, too, supports moving ahead.

“After many years on the council observing long-standing infrastructure needs of our schools, I support spending as much as we can now to correct structural deficiencies, improve ventilation and make our wonderful, historical school buildings as safe as possible,” he said in a message to Montclair Local.

Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock — who has served on the Board of School Estimates for nine years and is currently its chair — recently said a rushed timetable was “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.” 

Depending on a specific project, the district might need to seek approvals from both state and county agencies, he said.

But Fleischer says it’s not technically necessary to get those approvals before bonding, and that he’s spoken to Hurlock as recently as Friday about other options. Fleischer also wants to know: If the Board of School Estimate passed its resolution, and then Montclair became a Type II district, could the council still move ahead anyway? He suspects it’s a matter of unsettled law — but one that could come into play given the tight timing.

He said Hurlock seemed “open to having further discussion with Dr. Ponds and their lawyers to look at whether or not the order from board of school estimates goes ‘poof,’ or does that stay in effect.”

Township Attorney Ira Karasick told Montclair Local Tuesday he’d need to consult bond counsel on the question, but “in general, after the voters elected to switch to a Type II district, the council should not take any actions relating to a Type I district unless legally compelled to do so.”

Neither Hurlock nor other council members besides Yacobellis and Russo had returned messages sent Monday seeking comment before press time.

Fleischer laid out a hypothetical timetable: The school board would approve a resolution at its Aug. 16 meeting, and the Board of School Estimate would meet Aug. 30. That would give the township council two months to act before the potential change to Type II in November. 

But he conceded that means some departures from board policy of the last few years. It would mean moving ahead before designs and any needed approvals from other levels of government are in place, and paying work for professional services out of the bond. It would also mean taking on the debt earlier, and accruing more interest.

“It's not the procedure that was agreed to more recently,” he said. “[Getting approvals and doing design work first] does give the township more certainty, more time with less debt sitting out there before the project is complete.”

Yacobellis also advocates for moving ahead with a bond before state or other approvals.

“Montclair stands, rises or falls based on the success of our public schools,” Yacobellis said. “We can have the best restaurants in the world, the train stations, pretty houses. If we don't have good schools, this house of cards comes collapsing.”

He also says historically low interest rates and the possibility of labor or materials shortages amid a wave of federally funded infrastructure projects make the case for acting now.

The estimated $17 million of 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. That report came as Montclair schools remained closed amid concerns about coronavirus spread. Students and staff returned on a hybrid learning schedule later in the year — following a dispute with the Montclair Education Association over building safety that brought its own delays — and are expected to return full-time this fall. 

The Phase 1 work done so far amounts to about $1.6 million and included fixing windows and radiators and putting purifiers in rooms.

Even if the project is not approved by the council before November, there is still value in the work that will have been done, Yacobellis said. The proposed contractors, estimates and project outlines will be complete and ready for new members to approve, Yacobelis said.

“If the clock runs out, the clock runs out,” Yacobellis said. “But I don't think it has to if we really have the urgency that I think we could have here.”

Scherzer has previously said the school board will still pursue a “Phase 1.5,” using an existing $2 million from federal grants to address the most pressing building concerns. The district  expects to hear from Parette Somjen Architects soon regarding its recommendations for the most urgent work, he said. 

Messages sent this week to board counsel Machado Law Group and several members of the district administration had not been returned by press time.