By TALIA WIENER
On March 8, Montclair voters will do something that’s routine in other towns but novel to their community: They’ll elect school board members.
The Montclair Board of Education will hold a special election that day to fill the two seats created when voters last month approved a conversion from a “Type I” to a “Type II” school district system — and with it, did away with mayoral appointment of school board members. Going forward, members will be selected in elections, as they are in 97% of New Jersey municipalities.
Thursday, district officials shared news of the death of Dr. Alfred Davis Jr., a board member who’d served since 2019. “At this time, we will be reviewing the process to fill Dr. Davis’ unexpired term as a board member, within a Type II district,” board President Latifah Jannah told Montclair Local by email Friday morning.
The board won’t hold a referendum on March 8 to advance a large capital improvement bond — a needed step before taking on multimillion-dollar projects to overhaul aging buildings throughout the district. Under the Type I system, a bond would have gone to the separate Board of School Estimate to fix costs and then the Township Council for approval. But Type II districts, now including Montclair, let voters decide on such borrowing.
The board unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday, Dec. 1 approving the March special election. Board vice president Priscilla Church and Davis were not present at the meeting.
The two board members elected in March will each serve a term of one year and nine months.
Voters will return to the polls in November of 2022, to either return current board president Jannah and Church to office for full terms, or to pick their successors. They’ll also vote for a full term for the seat Davis had occupied. Those terms would have expired in May of 2022 under the old system; they’ll be extended until January of 2023 for the transition to the new one.
From there, elections will be held every November, for three seats, each up for a three-year term — cycling through the nine seats now available on the board.
Polling stations during the March 8 election will be open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and there will be an option to request mail-in ballots, Jannah said.
The change in school system type means a bond plan of $15.5 million for upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning in the school district — or any alternative to it — would need to go to voters for approval. In the runup to the November referendum, the plan bounced between the BoSE and BOE, with members of each at times saying they were waiting on the other body for next steps. Members of both said they hoped to advance a bond before the referendum, but the clock ran out.
The HVAC project is seen as the most urgent by school leaders, struggling to address issues including coronavirus safety concerns in aging buildings. But it only represents a portion of the BOE’s previous request of the BoSE and Township Council. On Aug. 16, the school board sent the BoSE a formal request for $60 million in bonding. Then, when the BoSE met Sept. 30, school leaders outlined about $150 million in requested bonding, to be spread out over years — with the $15.5 million HVAC work up first.
A request for proposal for a bond attorney will be published “within the next week or so,” board member Eric Scherzer said at the Dec. 1 meeting. The attorney would help guide the board through the process of submitting a bond referendum, he said.
But there probably will not be enough time to put the bond issue to voters at the March election, Scherzer said.
The next opportunity for a referendum doesn’t come up until months later. A bond referendum can go to voters the second Tuesday in December, the fourth Tuesday in January, the second Tuesday in March, the last Tuesday in September or during the board’s general election on the first Tuesday in November, according to Charlene Peterson, Essex County representative for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The timeline for a district referendum is about six months long, according to an advisory on referendums from the New Jersey Department of Education, provided to Montclair Local by Peterson.
If the district aims for the bond referendum during the November 2022 election, plans would have to be submitted to the state Department of Education in May, Jannah said.
“By that time, obviously we’d have bond counsel, and then in between there’s also the strategizing with local stakeholders, there are meetings — there’s just a lot that would have to happen,” Jannah said. “Once we can get the bond counsel piece done, we can begin to set out the timeline that may allow us to do that by November.”
All special elections costs are borne by the district, according to NJSBA. The November annual school election costs are borne by the county.
“I must say personally and not only personally, but you know for all of us, this delay is difficult and frustrating,” Scherzer said. “I hope that once we get a bond attorney on board, perhaps that can change.”
On Dec. 8, the Board of Education will hold a special meeting with no executive session during which Peterson will make a presentation about special elections and board referendums. She will also discuss board ethics, governance and the role of the board vs. the role of the superintendent, according to board Jannah.
“Some of the discussion that I had before the election was that people have absolutely no idea what it is to sit in this space,” Jannah said. “I think it’s important, particularly for anyone who is considering running for the board, to understand how the Board of Education functions.”
The board will take comments virtually during the Dec. 8 special meeting (Update: District officials originally said comment would be taken in-person and virtually, but later revised information on the district’s website).
So far, only one candidate has publicly announced a run. In September, Montclair High School graduate and Montclair State University student Noah Gale, known to many as an advocate for those with disabilities, announced he planned to run for school board, if the switch to a Type II occurred. Gale said he would run on a nonpartisan platform. He aims to be the youngest person ever to serve on the board, and the first college student on the board.