Montclair High School (FILE PHOTO)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Just days before freshmen were set to return to Montclair High School for a hybrid in-person learning schedule, the local teachers’ union said some parts of the building aren’t safe to use.

But that’s not consistent with the district’s own findings, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at a Board of Education meeting Monday, May 17. District officials and representatives of the Montclair Education Association planned to do another walkthrough the next morning, to try and resolve the differences in those assessments.

Freshmen were expected to return just a day after that — Wednesday, May 19. Ponds also planned Wednesday to announce return plans for sophomores, juniors and seniors. 

The MEA announced its findings the same night engineers EI Associates presented a long-range facilities plan the firm estimated would cost $57 million to execute, though a representative stressed costs estimates could fluctuate over time with market prices. Of that, EI identified more than $38 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs; a previous district-wide ventilation assessment put the price tag for needed work at $26 million

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After the MEA’s members refused to return to school buildings in January, citing coronavirus safety concerns, the district sued. An eventual settlement laid out a path for a return — contingent on school officials providing the union with more information about facilities and coronavirus safety measures, and taking the union on walkthroughs of all buildings before they reopen. In the time since, Montclair’s elementary and middle schools have reopened for hybrid schedules.

At a walkthrough of MHS and its George Inness Annex on May 14, the MEA found 17 restrooms — 11 in the main building and six in the Annex — should not be used due to a lack of mechanical ventilation, MEA Secretary Cathy Kondreck said Monday night. That included all of the teachers’ restrooms, Kondreck said. More than 25 offices and classrooms in the main building and seven in the annex also should not be used, she said the MEA found. The union has submitted a report of its findings to the district administration.

“Overall the most important point we learned from the walk-throughs is that there are dozens of areas in our district buildings that still do not have working mechanical ventilation,” Kondreck said.

The MEA’s report also requested the district have a plan in place to address the mechanical ventilation issues at MHS and have all systems functioning before next winter. 

“We look forward to you walking our buildings again with us tomorrow,” Ponds said Monday night. “I’ve already spoken with the principal about coming over to our school.”

MEA officials and Ponds haven’t yet responded to inquires about the results of the Tuesday walkthrough.

The return to Montclair schools had been delayed several times, even before the MEA and district dispute in January. Montclair’s schools originally planned to reopen for some in-person learning in September, but the district opted to push that date back when ventilation systems in most district buildings were deemed inadequate. In the time since, the district has purchased hundreds of air purifiers, done mechanical upgrades to windows and made other short-term fixes. Ponds pushed back a second expected reopening date in November because of a high rate of community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Michael Wozny, engineering firm EI’s vice president of education projects, said at the board meeting that heating, ventilation, and air conditioning work made up the largest category of identified needs in the long-term facilities plan.

Old ventilators and rooftop units need to be replaced and some classrooms are still without any form of mechanical ventilation, Wozny said. The board has authorized EI to take a closer look at ventilation throughout the district, to define the scope of work and create cost estimates and documentation needed to move forward, Wozny said.

Wozny also detailed needed work in other categories of need in the long-range facilities plan — for water-damaged interiors, lacking building security and accessibility issues.

Under Montclair’s form of government, bonds for school capital improvement projects are approved by the Township Council, rather than put to voters in referenda. Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in an email message to constituents this week, urged school officials to “think big” on shovel-ready facilities upgrades, and said he’d personally support a significant bond issue. Montclair schools are also slated to receive more than $6 million through the American Rescue Plan. 

“It would cost us far less to borrow and make these investments now than it would to pay for them in future years when the costs of labor and materials will be higher,” the councilman wrote. “Yes we must upgrade HVAC and investing in solar power is wonderful. But we must also be planning for more space (perhaps new buildings), updated electric, plumbing, windows, telecommunications, technology in our labs and classrooms as well as updates to fields, courts and auditoriums. As I said to Dr. Ponds and some BOE members — think big. Don’t worry about scaring us with a number. Let our finance team determine what can be done responsibly.”

Kondreck, from the MEA, is also a member of a new task force Mayor Sean Spiller’s announced to facilitate the transition to full-time in-person learning. The task force additionally includes administrators, other educators, parents and students. 

Its chair, special education and equity advocate Debra Jennings, told Montclair Local it’ll be up to the task force to identify its own priorities, but she expects the condition of school buildings to be among them.