Montclair Board of Education member Eric Scherzer said last week the current board is committed to making capital improvements for the school district, and he hopes new board members will also support the work.
(SCREENSHOT FROM NOV. 10 BOE MEETING)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair Board of Education members said last week they’re excited new members will join their ranks — now that the board is set to grow from seven to nine members — but hope candidates for the new slots are paying attention to what’s happening at meetings and will support a capital improvement bond in the next few months.

“Obviously, we’ve had a seismic shift due to the passing of the referendum to switch to an elected board,” board member Kathryn Weller-Demming said at a board meeting Wednesday, Nov. 10. “The transition is complicated, so we’re endeavoring to get everything in place to be able to welcome the new board members and onboard them, and we encourage all of the members of the community to vote in your upcoming school board elections.”

On Nov. 2, Montclair voters approved changing their school district from a Type I system with a mayor-appointed board of education to a Type II system with an appointed one. Once the election is certified, that will add two positions to the board, for a total of nine.

The process used for capital improvements will change as well. Instead of sending projects to a separate Board of School Estimate to fix costs, and then the Township Council to bond for them, the school board will have to put bonds before voters in regular or special elections. The BoSE itself will be dissolved. That means the Aug. 16 vote the school board took to request $60 million worth of work (later presenting the BoSE with a longer-term plan for $150 million spread over years, and prioritizing $15.5 million for urgent HVAC projects) is moot.

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President Latifah Jannah said Nov. 3, the day after the election, the board would be meeting with a representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association to address next steps. Officials will need to determine when an election can be held to fill the two new seats, and whether or when they’ll seek voter approval for the HVAC work.

Carl Tanksley, general counsel for the New Jersey School Boards Association, told Montclair officials in September that state law doesn’t have much to say about how to add board members after a change like the one Montclair is undergoing. And no specific details or dates for next steps were shared at the Wednesday meeting.

“I’m looking forward to getting as much counsel as we can to make sure that we’re setting everything up for success and not just rushing through things just to rush through things,”  board member Allison Silverstein said. “We do want to do it fast, but we want to do it right. That’s so important.”

Silverstein, chair of the board’s communications committee, said she’s working to assemble a manual for new board members with details about meeting proceedings, to assist with a smoother transition onto the board.

Ensuring a fair election process for board candidates is essential, vice president Priscilla Church said at the meeting. 

“I would be disappointed if it’s just a committee of people that are going to be choosing the candidates that are asked to run, because then I don’t think we’re really doing anything much different than what we had before which would be the mayor appointing board members,” Church said. “I hope with our democracy, we just let democracy work and I’m sure everything will be fine.”

And once new board members are elected, board member Eric Scherzer said, he hopes they will be committed to improving the school buildings and supporting a capital improvement bond.

The current board is “absolutely committed to making the kind of capital improvements that need to be made,” he said. Scherzer is chair of the finance and facilities committee. 

“I feel like we really need to move expeditiously on a capital request,” Scherzer said. “I think there’s universal agreement on the ventilation requests, and I hope to be able to move that forward pretty quickly as we go into the new year.”

The board is in the process of hiring a bond attorney and investigating how a bond referendum would fit in with elections, Scherzer said at the meeting.