The usual issues of traffic safety and development came up at First Ward Councilor William Hurlock’s March 27 community meeting at the Bellevue Avenue branch of the Montclair Free Public Library. However, Montclair crime and school funding were also brought up as concerns, and Schools Superintendent Kendra Johnson appeared to talk about the state of the school district.
Superintendent Johnson outlined her administration’s five basic goals in a handout she gave to residents in attendance, which explained how the district seeks to ensure that all Montclair students get a world-class education by cultivating a safe and healthy environment for students, establishing effective communications to all stakeholders, re-organizing the school system as a “service-oriented team,” and engaging stakeholders to contribute. Among the ways she envisioned achieving those goals were implementing a district-approved curriculum, instituting a strong arts program, pursuing problems to undo prejudice in all of its forms, and setting standards for communication through e-mails, newsletters and social media.
Residents inevitably asked Superintendent Johnson about the annual school budget and why there always seemed to be a deficit every school year. She explained that while the district can accurately predict the level of funding through the tax levy, the level of state aid varies annually, which was made clear in light of Governor Phil Murphy’s unexpectedly small state aid for Montclair. With the cost of doing business going up, Superintendent Johnson said her administration is trying to address budget realities by having quarterly meetings to prepare for the coming school year and creating space to set aside money for unexpected expenditures. She also addressed the staircase issue at Montclair High School, saying that the district was working to get a contractor to reinforce the stairs and find an acceptable bid for the project by May. In the meantime, the district is pursuing a structural analysis of all the buildings in the school system.
Councilor Hurlock also asked Officer Travis Davis of the Montclair Police Department to talk about safety, both of the public and traffic variety. There had recently been a surge in burglaries throughout Upper Montclair, and a suspect connected to the burglaries was arrested in Jersey City and subsequently charged for breaking and entering. Councilor Hurlock noted that the suspect was not charged for all of the incidents, but was in fact charged on the ones most likely to stick. The number of burglaries, Officer Davis noted, has gone down since the arrest. Officer Davis, a member of the police’s community policing unit, said there are numerous steps one can take to protect one’s home. Among them are alarms and locks in good order, shrubs cut low to eliminate hiding places, and keeping valuables in a safe as opposed to bedroom drawers.
A few residents expressed concern about students loitering outside during lunch breaks and recess, and Officer Davis said that while the police pay attention to such activity, he also stressed that it’s important to engage and gain the trust of young people who most likely have no bad intentions when hanging out. He did say he would try to talk to children on bicycles to ensure that they ride them safely. Residents expressed concern about young people on motorized bicycles and other kids doing “wheelies” in the streets and possibly putting themselves in danger. Councilor Hurlock said there was no law in New Jersey prohibiting bicycles on sidewalks, but he added that there is a rule for young people to wear helmets while riding.
Councilor Hurlock reiterated his own frustration with the new standard in dealing with pedestrians while driving, which requires motorists to yield to pedestrians who may or may not be crossing the streets and puts a greater onus on motorists. The councilor said that pedestrians, now having the right of way, usually don’t look both ways before crossing the streets. Some residents said parents taking their children to school and walking them across the street between corners – jaywalking – ought to be encouraged to cross their children at corners with designated crosswalks. Councilor Hurlock and Officer Davis noted that the problem with street corners is that it’s permissible to cross, even where there is no striped crosswalk.
Also, Montclair Environmental Commission Chair Lyle Landon announced plans to submit to the Township Council an ordinance banning plastic bags and requiring either Montclair shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to retail businesses in town or purchase recyclable bags with their purchase from a retail business at a nominal fee. She noted the success of a similar ban in other towns and states, and there is currently an effort to see how such an ordinance would be implemented.
Development issues that were raised mostly concerned the First Ward, and Councilor Hurlock stressed that he had been instrumental in ensuring that the master plan excludes any tall buildings in the Upper Montclair business district. He also said that he and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager worked to mitigate the layout of a new apartment building going up near Watchung Plaza on a block straddling the two wards. He also updated residents on the efforts to revive the Bellevue Theater on Bellevue Avenue, saying that the owner of the building has been slow to respond to efforts by Montclair Film board member Luke Parker-Bowles, and adding that he hasn’t heard any news of late. When a resident asked if the council was going to fine billionaire Melih Abdulhayoglu for tearing down two historic houses in the Estate section to make way for his planned mega-mansion, Councilor Hurlock said the demolitions were perfectly legal, and he lamented that the ordinance once on the books that sought to protect historic houses from demolition had to be repealed in 2012 because it was “legally deficient” and could not be properly implemented.
Councilor Hurlock also said that 2,000 linear feet of during and 15 miles of repaving had taken place in the First Ward since 2012, and he added that the paying down of the debt and the resulting AAA bond rating allowed for more capital funds to be spent on ongoing infrastructure improvements.