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Lessons From Hunterdon Regionalization: Let the Communities Lead

Top-down approach to mergers hasn’t gotten very far, so a grass-roots approach could be the key to success

Senate President Steve Sweeney at celebration of regionalization of four districts in Hunterdon County.

The last time a New Jersey school district regionalized was in the mid-1990s, which may help explain why state officials yesterday played up the merger of four districts in Hunterdon County.

Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe made the trip to Lambertville for the ribbon- and cake-cutting, as did state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

But after years of trying to force feed school regionalization to a state famous for its 600 school districts and the sanctity of home rule, the message from several officials was a bit unexpected.

“It’s got to be one conversation at a time,” said Gerald Vernotica, the Hunterdon County superintendent. “That’s what got this done.”

Added Hespe: “It was people across these communities who started a conversation, developed a common vision, and asked, ‘Why can’t these things happen here?’”

Even Sweeney, who has backed his share of bills pushing – if not requiring -- districts to work closely together, said there may be some rethinking needed in order to move away from state mandates and financial incentives.

“It really has to start from the ground up,” he said. “You’ve seen me try from top down. You really need people to have the courage to do it themselves.

At another point, Sweeney said, “The financial incentives don’t work.”

What precisely does work was on display yesterday, albeit on a small scale, with the first day of school in the new South Hunterdon School District.

It took seven years of discussion and more than a couple of hiccups, but yesterday saw officials from Lambertville, Stockton and West Amwell come together to celebrate the first school regionalization since the creation of Great Meadows Regional School District in 1995.

Hespe at the time was in the Gov. Christie Whitman’s counsel office in charge of education policy, and said he remembered the merger well. There had been a short run of them, including the Chathams in 1994 and Bordentown in 1986.

“If you were to have told me then that it would take another 20 years,” he said yesterday, “I would have said now way.”

But in fact, far more districts have broken up in the past two decades than have merged. Although the state has regularly called for more mergers, it rarely has been able to deliver the political juice to see many take hold. The latest call came in a state auditor’s report this summer that cited the inefficiency of incurring administrative costs in so many districts.

Still, the South Hunterdon merger did start with the state’s last concerted push seven years ago, when legislation called for each county’s state offices to conduct a study of the regionalization possibilities.

That effort stalled due to the lack of funding to conduct feasibility studies, but it at least launched the conversation in the three Hunterdon communities that were already working together as feeder districts to the South Hunterdon Regional High School.

And Hespe said, it’s a model that bears repeating.

“The first thing we do is take the lessons learned from South Hunterdon about what it takes from a community perspective and not a bureaucratic one,” he said yesterday. “That is what it takes.”

“And it also needs to be shepherded by a central group, looking at where’s the opposition, what is the information and the misinformation,” Hespe said. “And then you have persistence, as it will take time . . . This happened over years, seven years, not just people getting together one day.”

That’s not to say the state won’t take a role, he said, saying that his department would target a dozen districts or so that would appear the likeliest candidates.

Regardless of whether these schools are very small or already sending or accepting students from other districts, “the goal is not to let this sit,” Hespe said.

“We’re going to take these lessons, and we are going to reach out to a dozen places -- there are at least a dozen -- that are looking at the same issues,” he said.

One force that may be prompting some rethinking by districts is the new state strictures on their spending, especially the 2 percent property tax cap.

“That is something that is forcing the sharing of services already,” Sweeney said. “Caps could be a real driving force. It’s why I initially suggested a cop of zero. At least as the job gets done, it doesn’t matter who’s name is on the side of the building.”

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