A vote last fall by four Hunterdon County school districts to merge was a rarity for a state where people love to talk about regionalization, but rarely take the step.
Now, as the new South Hunterdon Regional School district moves into its first year as a K-12 district – joining South Hunterdon High School with Stockton, West Amwell and Lambertville elementary schools — it is providing some early lessons in the benefits and costs of such a move.
The lessons are especially timely as a new report by the Office of the State Auditor, an arm of the state Legislature, urged the state to push harder for school regionalization as a way to curb administrative overhead.
The South Hunterdon regionalization has not yet proven to be a big cost-saver, according to district Superintendent Lou Muenker.
But at the same time, he said, it has shown immediate benefits as instruction and other services are better aligned, thanks to the K-12 structure.
“We are already getting asked by other districts how we’ve done it,” said Muenker, a former Pennsylvania superintendent. “From my lens, there is just a lot of logic to having a K-12 district.”
The new South Hunterdon school board this spring approved a $20.1 million budget for the coming school year that ultimately will amount to a 2 percent increase over the previous combined spending of the four districts.
The three elementary districts had each been sending their students to South Hunterdon High School, but now they’re part of a single district with 950 students and 200 employees.
“In the feasibility for the regionalization, there was indication of some cost savings, but it was never a huge premise that vast amount of savings would be realized,” Muenker said.
“There could be some great savings coming down the road, but it come in small pieces,” he said.
There were some immediate savings, to be sure, including the elimination of one superintendent position and a business administrator job, both in the West Amwell district, which saved about $260,000.
But other costs erased those savings, including an 18 percent increase in health insurance costs.
And there’s a big wild card: Contract talks with the new districtwide teachers union have continued through the summer. Under state law, contracts in such cases revert to the salary guide in the largest district – in this case, the former South Hunterdon High School district – but as a new contract is being negotiated, salaries are being frozen.
“It will be a challenge for both sides in how to merge and marry the (salary) steps,” Muenker said.
The school chief added that there could be further savings down the road, especially in the areas of purchasing and facilities. Citing one example, Muenker noted that roof repairs needed at one of the elementary schools could be handled by the maintenance and repair that once only handled such tasks at the high school.
And bigger savings may come in the future as the district revisits the use of its school buildings.
The tiny Stockton Elementary School, with less than 100 students, has frequently been eyed for possible closing. But regionalization advocates pledged that no such changes would come at least in the first year or two after the districts merged.
“It will remain a school for now, but down the road, who knows,” the superintendent said. “That question is still out there.”
In the shorter term, Muenker said having a single staff and other merging other overlapping functions provide more flexibility. For example, an opening for a music teacher at the high school was filled by a music teacher who had been at one of the elementary schools.
The district has also taken pains to keep the identity of the individual elementary schools, which have kept their school mascots and individual PTAs, for instance.
“We kept all the things that makes the schools feel homey,” he said.