Montclair Board of School Estimate members said they needed more information from Superintendent Jonathan Ponds Thursday before continuing discussion of a $15.5 million bond request for a district-wide HVAC upgrade project.
(SCREENSHOT FROM SEPT. 30 BOARD OF SCHOOL ESTIMATE MEETING)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news 

On Thursday, the district presented its long-range master plan at a Board of School Estimate meeting, laying out nearly $150 million in projects that would last through 2030. Included in that plan was an urgent request for a bond to cover $15.5 million in heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades. 

But BoSE members at the Sept. 30 meeting said they were confused as to what exactly the district is asking for. A bond request from the Board of Education a few weeks ago was set at $60 million. The amount presented Thursday was more than double that.

The timing with bonding is pressing — in November, voters will decide if Montclair should immediately become a Type II district. That would establish an elected school board, dissolve the Board of School Estimate and put bonds for capital projects before voters through referendums, which could further delay projects.

On Aug. 16, the Montclair Board of Education approved a resolution to request bonding for $60 million in building upgrades and costs associated with issuing a bond. The upgrades, of which $38 million is for ventilations system, were identified this spring in a long-range facilities plan

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At the BoSE meeting however, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds presented a $150 million overall master plan with three project groups. The plan created by Parette Somjen Architects stated the most pressing is “HVAC Phase 2” in the amount of $15.5 million, set to bond for 2022. Next is “High Priority Projects,” set for 2023 in the amount of $37 million. The final group is focused on long-range work in the amount of $95 million, with projects taking place from 2024 to 2030. 

“I have no idea what they’re asking for,” Deputy Mayor and BoSE Chairman Bill Hurlock told Montclair Local Friday. “This new category is $95 million. They’ve asked for $60 million. Now we’re talking about $15 million. It’s been a disappointment because it’s just been such a mess the way this was handled.”

BOE vice president and BoSE member Priscilla Church said at the meeting: “We went to $60 million because of the pressure that we do feel because of the uncertainty of the election, not knowing where we’re going to be at the end of November.” 

Ponds has not yet responded to an email sent to his district address or a phone message left with the superintendent’s office Friday morning with questions about the difference in bond request amounts. 

Ponds told BoSE members the long-range plan “is a living document that’s going to give us a roadmap for decades to come, what needs to get done in our schools. 

“I would like to leave a legacy that the next superintendent, whenever that may be, will say, ‘we have work done in our buildings, we feel good about what we’re moving forward with and we’ll continue to move forward,’” Ponds said.

Ponds said HVAC Phase 2 involves making permanent fixes to ventilation systems that currently meet standards, but need to be overhauled. The district has met ventilation requirements set in “The Road Forward,” New Jersey’s guidance for schools during the pandemic. But the HVAC Phase 2 plan would eliminate the need for short-term classroom solutions such as open windows and air purifiers, Ponds said.   

The HVAC Phase 2 plan provides upgrades to spaces that have antiquated ventilation in buildings dating back to the 1930s, Parette Somjen Architects associate Will Ross told BoSE members. When a unit goes down, older parts can be much harder to come by, he added. 

At the meeting, BoSE members asked school district officials for a further breakdown of the HVAC Phase 2 plan, citing concerns over the project’s timeline.

The district’s intention was for HVAC Phase 2 to be completed during summer 2022, but that is unlikely according to a timeline laid out by Ross.

According to that timeline, the HVAC Phase 2 plan will take anywhere from a year to a year and a half to complete after a bond is issued, Ross said. It takes four months to design the project and create construction plans. Another month or two is spent bidding and securing contractors. Next, the procurement of the materials will take upwards of six months, due to COVID-19 related supply delays. Construction will then take three to four months depending on the space and scope of the specific project, Ross said.

The BoSE needs to know what can be finished before the 2021-2022 school year and the cost associated with that work, BoSE member and fourth ward councilman David Cummings told Montclair Local. 

“If the project is going to take 12 to 18 months… then we have some latitude in potentially spreading out the dollars,” Cummings told Montclair Local. “Dr. Ponds said several times this is a living document. To me that means their figures can change again.”

Hurlock and BoSE member and third ward councilwoman Lori Price Abrams asked at the meeting if a project of a smaller scope could be completed on a more condensed timeline and finished before the 2022-2023 school year begins. 

During the bulk of the HVAC upgrades, students are not allowed in the building, Ross said. 

“If we aren’t able to approve $15.5 million, what is the priority?” Price Abrams said. “Then we can figure out what it is that we can actually come to an agreement on and seek to move forward.”

The BoSE is “committed” to getting resources for the schools, but it has to be done “in a smart, prudent way,” Hurlock said at the meeting. 

“We’re asking to prioritize in terms of what can feasibly be done in that time period,” Hurlock said. “It can’t just be, okay, here’s the receipt, pay. That’s not the way it works.”

The Board of Education looks at all the schools that need upgrades as being blocked together, Church said. Parents want ventilation to be upgraded in all buildings, she added. 

“For us, Parette Somjen Architects, or anybody to decide we’re going to pick this building over another building, I don’t know if that’s where we should be at this point,” Church said. “We will tell you, and most parents are going to tell you, that the HVAC issue is an issue of our time right now that all of us would like to remedy.”

Montclair Parent Teacher Association Council president Tessie Thomas said at the meeting that deferring maintenance and upkeep as a short-term strategy to manage budgets has led to permanent problems.

“[It’s] costing us more than dollars in educational impacts, and is detrimental to Montclair’s reputation,” Thomas said. “Deficiencies in facilities have impacted our children’s education over the past several years. One doesn’t need studies to reach this conclusion.” 

While the total cost of the district’s plan is high, a smaller amount of money could be bonded by the BoSE to enable progress, parent Jonathan Bellack said at the meeting.

“This is not a retirement community in Florida,” Bellack said. “This is a family town, and people choose to come here and pay taxes here based on the quality of the schools.” 

Ponds said he would do what is necessary to move the project forward. 

“My goal is to present what we need,” Ponds said. “We will phase it over time if that’s the case, because I need to get work done in the district for our kids.”

The $37 million “High Priority Projects” group set for 2023 includes all other pressing, non-HVAC projects — electrical repairs, plumbing, interiors and more. The long-range work, set to take place over the next decade, is focused on upgrading buildings and classrooms, to bring the Montclair schools into the 21st century, Church said at the meeting. 

How the process would work if voters decided to change Montclair to a Type II district is uncertain. Township Attorney Ira Karasick said at the meeting that little statutory law exists about the transition process of a town changing from a Type I to Type II. There are conflicted perspectives on what happens to incomplete BoSE work once the transition occurs. But the work the BoSE is doing now, Karasick said, “is work that has to be done anyway.” 

Working on this request from the district is “a good example of the effectiveness of having a BOSE,” Cummings told Montclair Local. 

“We can work collaboratively with the district to finance projects like this and prevent a huge increase to our debt,” Cummings told Montclair Local. “It eliminates [the] unpredictability of having referendums for large capital projects.”

The worth of the BoSE can best be demonstrated by the current members succeeding in their charge, Price Abrams said at the meeting.

“If we can be effective here, we will make a case for why we should continue,” Price Abrams said. “And if we can’t be effective here, people will decide what they think.”

The meeting ended with BoSE members asking for a breakdown of the $15.5 million prioritizing schools most in need of HVAC upgrades. 

The district must make a request for the next BoSE meeting to continue the bonding discussion, which hopefully will be “very soon,” Hurlock said at the meeting. 

“We are all in favor of moving the process and trying to assist where we can, but under these circumstances, it’s tough,” Hurlock told Montclair Local Friday.