Local Schools Have Jump on State as Lawmakers Rehash Elementary District Regionalization

Aug 22, 2018

With the start of a new school year around the corner, a renewed push by state lawmakers to revisit elementary district regionalization seems a perfect fit. It’s a been a common theme for decades, beginning in 1969 when a state-appointed committee recommended reshaping school systems into K-12 districts.

Like then, and as recently as a decade ago, the discussion of regionalizing districts is about money – or more concisely, saving taxpayers money.

Melissa McCooley, superintendent of schools at both the Little Egg Harbor K-6 district, and the Pinelands Regional High School District, said consolidation has been discussed there, but the cost, at the time, was too significant. Students from Little Egg, Eagleswood, Tuckerton and Bass River attend Pinelands junior and high schools.

“People like their autonomy,” she said earlier this week, echoing what Kerri A. Wright, one of the attorneys involved with creating the South Hunterdon Regional School District, said in an essay about the project.

In 2013, voters in Lambertville, West Amell and Stockton agreed to creating a new school district, one of only a handful of regional districts to be born out of changes the Legislature made in 1993 to encourage educational regionalization. In her essay, posted on the New Jersey School Boards Association website, Wright asks, and answers, why more districts haven’t regionalized.

“The answer, in large part,” Wright says, “is based upon the tax allocation method used to support the operation of those regional districts. If communities cannot be guaranteed tax savings, they often are loath to give up local control.”

But, as McCooley is quick to point out, just because cost savings may not be immediate doesn’t mean taxpayers should throw the baby out with the bath water. Even without regionalization, there are things that can be done to reduce cost, she said. And the districts feeding into Pinelands are doing it.

Since June, Pinelands and Little Egg Harbor have been sharing McCooley’s services, meaning each district is responsible for paying half her salary instead of one district paying it in its entirety. Additionally, special education services make up a large chunk of the shared services, especially with Bass River, which is located in Burlington County.

Occupational therapy, a world language teacher and technical services are among the other resources the districts share. In the future, the districts will take a closer look at food services, she said.

Perhaps the biggest bang for the buck, though, is the sharing of facilities.

“Little Egg makes a little money and Pinelands Regional doesn’t have to go on split sessions,” McCooley said, explaining a deal that will send Pinelands seventh-graders to the George J. Mitchell Elementary School while construction takes place at the high school. This move, along with some temporary classrooms, allows high school students to attend the junior high school.

If the state moves on the recommendation, other local elementary districts face the chopping block, including Beach Haven, Long Beach Island Consolidated, Stafford Township and Waretown. All of those feed into the Southern Regional School District.

“At this point, there is insufficient detail, that I have seen, in any proposal, making it impossible to speculate on impact,” said Craig Henry, superintendent of the Southern Regional School District.

Nicole Brossoie, a public information officer for the state Department of Education, said the state agency does not comment on pending legislation.

“If districts determine it is in their best interest to merge or consolidate,” she said recently, “the NJDOE has staff that can assist the process as it has done for the districts that combined to create Southern Hunterdon and Hunterdon.”

In a February 2018 report to Gov. Phil Murphy’s office, the state school boards association said it supports efforts to regionalize where there are financial benefits and, above all else, educational benefits for the students.

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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