By TALIA WIENER
Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds says he’s been losing sleep over the state of his district’s buildings.
“Our buildings are very old. They need repair. It’s going to cost money,” Ponds told Board of Education members when they came together for a “retreat” meeting on July 14. “The time is now.”
And he says he’ll be bringing that message to the community in the coming weeks and months as the district lays out plans to fix its facilities.
The state of school buildings has long been an area of concern for Montclair’s school leadership and the community it serves. Ponds said it’s a matter of student safety, and that he’s been talking to those close to him — to his wife, his colleagues, his executive assistant — about how much the problems trouble him.
“I had to say it openly and put that test in front of me,” Ponds said at the retreat. “We have to do it.”
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 issues 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.
In the fall, engineers EI Associates identified $26 million worth of work needed to fix extensive ventilation problems as schools were struggling to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic — finding many rooms had no ventilation at all.
And a May 17 long-range facilities plan by EI Associates estimated that more than $57.2 million is needed for renovations at the district’s facilities overall, again identifying ventilation as the biggest issue.
Facilities concerns were also at the heart of the district’s dispute this year with the Montclair Education Association that delayed a return to buildings by months.
And school officials have hired an investigator to probe Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV’s allegations that serious maintenance issues were often ignored by his superiors as they sought to shift blame to custodial staff. A teacher Kelley referenced told Montclair Local she thought a dirty classroom made her sick. Kelley also alleges superiors lied to health investigators about a series of health concerns, and that students were put at unnecessary risk from asbestos, rodents, extreme cold and heat.
“We need to invest in our buildings, and we need money to do so,” Ponds said at the retreat. “Parents, stakeholders, I’ll be out there saying this and preaching this.”
But Ponds didn’t lay out a mechanism at the retreat for paying for repairs — or discuss what sort of work might fold into regular school budgets, or large bonds.
“Please know we are dividing this work into phases,” he told Montclair Local by email. “The phase plan will be presented to the board and the public to get this much-needed work done.”
The message included a copy of the ventilation report from last fall.
In most towns, a large bonding measure for capital improvements would go directly to voters. But in Montclair, a Type 1 district, a capital improvement would first be approved by the Board of School Estimate, and then the Township Council would approve the bond.
The scope of the problems
Some needed fixes will be fast and easy, but others will take months and significant funds to implement, Michael Wozny, EI vice president of educational projects, said at the May 17 meeting.
Water damage is “riddled throughout the district,” on roofs, through the foundations and retaining walls and around mechanical equipment, Wozny said. Elevators and lifts are not fully accessible at Watchung School, Edgemont School, Renaissance at Rand Middle School and Montclair High School. There are overdue lighting upgrades, outdated plumbing that includes floor-mounted urinals, windows that don’t seal and floors that need to be refinished, he said.
The buildings also need to be reconfigured to prioritize school security, so that visitors are only able to enter and be processed through one secure location. A main office adjacent to a main entrance is key, Wozny said.
“There are currently no secure vestibules at any of the schools,” he said.
This will be easier to do at some schools, like Bradford School and Edgemont School, where the main office is already next to the entrance, he said. But at Hillside School, where the main entrance is on the second floor far from the main office, Wozny recommended a small addition to the entryway on the lower level.
Montclair High School requires the most work of any school in the district, according to El. Buzz Aldrin Middle School leads the district’s three middle schools in the amount of work needed, and Hillside School leads the elementary schools.
Bullock School, the newest in the district, built in 2010, requires the fewest repairs, all of which Wozny said were normal for a building of its age.
The largest category of identified need was HVAC, with an estimated price tag in the May report of more than $38 million. In addition to small repairs, entire boilers need to be replaced at Nishuane School, Renaissance and other schools, Wozny said. Ventilation work required in the district is extensive, with many classrooms still using old ventilators or completely lacking natural ventilation.
Some of the work has already begun, including a masonry repair project across the district, Wozny said. But the next step for EI is to receive more input from the district on what it wants to prioritize, he said.
‘Facilities have been shortchanged’
Eric Scherzer, one of the school board’s newly appointed members and chair of its finance committee, said at this month’s retreat meeting he agrees with Ponds — that now is the time to invest.
“It’s really clear what Dr. Ponds is saying, that the facilities have been shortchanged, not paid attention to,” he said.
If the school district plans major repairs that require bonding, it’ll need support from the Township Council.
Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who has served on the Board of School Estimate for nine years and is currently its chair, said he’s had several conversations with Ponds and school board members on looming capital improvement needs — “some of which are here already.”
But throughout the last several years, the school system has seen a procession of several superintendents and acting superintendents, so it’s been hard to have continuity, Hurlock said. Ponds joined the district in 2020, amid the pandemic.
“The most pressing [need] right now would be [the] HVAC issue so that we can get the students and staff and administration safely into the buildings,” Hurlock said.
But he said the idea of bonding is “a wild card now,” because this fall, residents will vote whether Montclair should become a Type 2 school district. Under that system, school board members would be elected, instead of appointed by the mayor. The Board of School Estimate would be eliminated, and bonds for large capital improvements would go to voters in ballot questions.
“Going forward, it’s really going to depend on the voters as to how that’s structured and how much debt is incurred,” Hurlock said.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in several messages to the community, has been advocating for major school facilities work, citing federal coronavirus relief funding as an opportunity to invest in infrastructure.
He said in a May 12 message the proposal from EI lacks medium and long-term vision.
“I strongly urge the district to think big here and develop a capital investments plan as soon as possible, before we miss this once-in-a-generation moment. Send the township your needs and wish list,” he wrote. “I would support a significant bond issuance in these economic conditions. With our AAA rating and the federal benchmark rate at .25%, 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.”
His message continued: “Yes to HVAC, yes to solar … but also yes to more space, updated electric, plumbing, windows, telecommunications, tech in labs and classrooms, updates to fields, courts and auditoriums. Yes to eco-friendly, cleaner and safer learning environments for your kids, teachers and school employees. If not now, when? Shame on us if we miss this moment.”
Councilman David Cummings, a lifelong resident of Montclair who attended the public schools, told Montclair Local by email Tuesday he supports getting the district the money it needs, but “it’s a matter of finding out how to” through the Board of School Estimate.
“I was in classrooms that hadn’t changed since my father went to school. The buildings are old, and I hope we’re able to support them and get them everything they need in a fiscally responsible manner,” he said.
Debra Jennings, chair of a committee Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller formed to help shape the district’s return to full-time education in the fall, told Montclair Local in May: “We have to look at what needs to happen with the buildings. I mean … you can’t escape that at all.”
By press time Jennings had not returned a message left Tuesday seeking further comment.
A majority of Montclair’s school buildings were built in the early to mid 20th century. Glenfield School, the Montclair Community Pre-K facility and the administration building were all built in the 19th century. The only outlier is Bullock School, built in 2010.