Checking in on the South Hunterdon School Consolidation

The regionalization is running smoothly, but required more work than anybody involved ever imagined

South Hunterdon Regional Hight School
In the state’s first school consolidation in two decades, South Hunterdon’s merger of four school districts in 2013 has proven to be an example of both the good and the difficult in school regionalization.

The good news is that the merger appears to have worked, at least as described by top officials of the district in a forum held on school consolidations last week.

School curriculums are aligned, and contracts merged and finalized.

“We are proud to be able to share a success story as far as consolidation and regionalization,” said Dan Seiter, president of the new South Hunterdon school board, at the forum held on Educational Testing Service’s campus in Princeton.

The more cautionary news is that this was a long and labor-intensive process in what was actually one of the simplest mergers: four districts that were essentially unified in practice, if not in name.

There are no regrets, the officials said, but they acknowledged that it doesn’t happen overnight. And it hasn’t happened since.

“It has been an incredible experience for us,” Seiter said. “It would take a whole day if not a whole week to describe what has gone on.”

The discussion was part of a daylong conference titled “Bringing Students Together: The Obstacles and Opportunities of School District Consolidation,” hosted by the ETS and the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group.

Other sessions focused on both the realities and the prospects of school consolidation in a state of nearly 600 districts, with a focus on regionalization as a means to help desegregate what are among the nation’s most segregated schools.

The numbers alone are daunting, with just a third of the state’s districts covering K-12th grades, the rest either high school or elementary school districts.

Yet attempts to consolidate districts — whether for diversity or for cost savings — have largely gone nowhere for decades, with the most recent sentiment actually toward the further break up of school systems rather than merge.

The state has not been much help. A 2007 law that required the state’s offices in each county to draw up potential districts to merge resulted in a series of reports, but no funding to take them any further. A bill that would move to countywide districts has gone nowhere in the Legislature.

South Hunterdon has provided the cautionary tale, and as its school board president described, this was one of the success stories.

[related]“I don’t know how many times I have used the phrase ‘sculpting fog,’ but that is what we were doing, sculpting fog,” Seiter said last week.

He described how the process started as far back as 2008, with an initial resolution of all four boards of education to look at consolidation: South Hunterdon Regional High School, West Amwell, Lambertville, and Stockton. Each among the smallest districts in the state, they already served as feeder districts into the regional high school.

It took five years and “meetings after meetings after meetings” that led to a referendum to move toward a feasibility study, Seiter said, where voters in all four communities voted to proceed.

Then, in 2013, the voters convincingly decided to dissolve the existing districts and create a new district to start in 2014. A year ago, South Hunterdon graduated its first class of the newly formed district.

Yet, not much changed on the ground in the interim. Students are still attending the same elementary schools they always attended, with mascots and other local traditions remaining in place. No schools have closed, no enrollments have been reconfigured.

“We promised them for the immediate future that things would be basically the same,” said superintendent Louis Muenker.

Yet even with that, he said there have been continued adjustments in how the district operated.

Three superintendents and two business administrators would be reduced to one each. Just this year did they finalize policies for the new unified district. A labor contract was struck that merged what was previously four different teacher contracts into one, combining widely divergent terms and pay scales between elementary and high schools.

“We closed down accounts, opened new ones,” Muenker said. “It was a learning process and learning curve for everybody. I gave credit to our employees, who were patient through the process and worked with us … We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

“We’re now finishing up year two of our regionalization, and we are just now feeling much better as to where we are,” he said.