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Trenton Meeting Meant to Divine Secrets of Schools’ Success

DOE summons leaders from 16 high-achieving districts in hopes of finding new models on budgeting and spending for education.

Each due to arrive by 8:30 a.m. at the state Department of Education’s offices today, the leaders of 16 school districts invited to discuss budgets and spending will represent an interesting collage of New Jersey public education.

Urban districts from both north and south, a couple of working class stiffs, a charter school upstart, and some of the New Jersey’s suburban stars. The Jersey Shore is represented, as is the tiny one-school district that epitomizes the state’s infamous home rule.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Outside Union City High School, one of the high-achieving districts invited to Trenton for meetings on possible models for budgeting and spending.

“I’m not sure I’ve even heard of all of them,” said Earl Kim, superintendent of Montgomery schools, one of the invited.

But the Christie administration has, and it believes these districts all do more with less and serve as potential models for the state.

State Education Commission Bret Schundler has asked the 16 districts to spend the day in Trenton to talk behind closed doors about what works in their schools, which have realized relatively high student achievement levels at relatively low cost, as compared to their peers.

It’s more than just a feel-good talk, too, as it is part of a process to revisit how the state funds its public schools, as ordered by the state Supreme Court in its latest Abbott v. Burke ruling. The result will be a report to the Legislature on what, if any, changes should be made to the funding formula.

Today’s meeting will be led by Gene Wilhoit, director of the Council for Chief State School Officers, and state officials are not slated to participate, although its unclear if they’ll be in the room.

They chosen districts are:

  • Barnegat
  • Elmer Borough/Pittsgrove
  • Fort Lee
  • Freehold Regional
  • Hillsborough
  • Laurel Spring
  • Learning Community Charter School (Jersey City)
  • Manalapan-Englishtown
  • Montgomery (Somerset)
  • North Bergen
  • Oradell
  • Point Pleasant Borough
  • Rumson
  • Union City
  • Vineland
  • Woodbridge

Hillsborough is one of the state’s wealthiest districts, but it still spends $2,000 less per student than the state average of $15,000. At the other end of the income spectrum, Union City has been New Jersey’s best advertisement for successful urban districts for years, its elementary school test scores up there with the state averages overall.

“When given the resources and opportunity, these students can be as successful as any in the state,” said Stanley Sanger, superintendent of Union City schools.

Of course, resources are the big question mark these days, as Schundler and Gov. Chris Christie have openly sought to reduce -- or at least slow down -- school spending, and the meeting is meant as a signal for what they hope will be a model of “thorough and efficient” education, as the state’s constitution requires.

That’s not lost on the participants, some a little hesitant to be held up as exemplars when they are laying off teachers and staff.

Union City is losing 30 teachers and other staff by attrition, and Sanger said he hopes this isn’t about creating “some cookie-cutter” model. “Our model is custom-made to Union City,” he said.

Kim in Montgomery said he’ll lose middle school sports.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “But I’m not sure how sympathetic they’ll be.”

Point Pleasant Borough is cutting kindergarten aides in the elementary schools and music and world language classes in its high school, largely due to a $2 million cut in state aid under Christie. Still, superintendent Vincent Smith said he’d rather be at the table than not.

“We’re happy to share what we do in Point Pleasant,” he said. “And it looks like they’ve picked a wide range, so it will be interesting to hear from others, too.”

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