After lining up support, Sweeney is ready to push school regionalization plans

Senate president expected to present measures, including incentives that would impact school aid
Senate President Steve Sweeney

State Senate President Steve Sweeney has been pushing the school regionalization cause for what seems like years, a central plank in a variety of plans the powerful Democrat has proclaimed necessary to mend the state’s fiscal plight.

Now, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) finally appears ready to see if anyone will bite, as he is expected to finally post legislation this week that he said would provide the tools for districts to consolidate in a wide variety of forms, including even countywide districts.

Some of it is hardly new in New Jersey’s long — and mostly fruitless — quest to consolidate its 500-plus public school districts into a more manageable structure.

And it will surely face some of the same resistance as these plans always have. Gov. Phil Murphy gave a hint of it last week when asked about school regionalization, warning about the power of home rule.

An olive branch for some districts

But Sweeney and his co-sponsors are also throwing in some new incentives this time, including an olive branch to specifically New Jersey’s s dozens of school districts that are taking a hit in the state’s distribution of school aid.

“This will be the first major overhaul of New Jersey’s school regionalization statute in 25 years,” Sweeney said in announcing the bills a week ago.

The bill comes out of Sweeney’s Path to Progress campaign announced in 2018, largely seen at the time as a counter-proposal to Murphy’s push for a millionaires tax.

In addition to school regionalization goals, the campaign most notably included Sweeney’s proposals for reforms in the state’s pension and health benefits for public employees. Some benefits reforms have since been passed, as did the enactment of Murphy’s millionaires tax.

But the schools strategy moved more quietly, with Sweeney spending the better part of a year lining up support before he went public with his plans for the legislation. He also drew in some notable co-sponsors in state Sens. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).

Salem, other counties look at consolidation

Most notable in Sweeney’s preparation, he worked with school leaders in Salem County — the state’s most rural county — to get them to at least start a study of consolidating their operations in a single countywide district. In addition, a half-dozen other districts have said they would embark on such studies, as well.

Sweeney’s bill now aims to ease the process further, not only paying for the studies but removing some of the financial barriers that have stopped previous efforts in their tracks.

However, maybe the most significant move yet is a new proposal to put real dollars behind the push. Currently, nearly 200 districts deemed as over-aided are seeing a slight to significant cut in state aid over seven years. Sweeney’s proposal would extend those cuts over another four years.

“Regionalization is particularly important for small districts with declining enrollments that are having an increasingly hard time providing a quality educational experience and making their budgets work,” Sweeney said.

Long-term savings

Richard Bozza, director of the state’s superintendents association, said the state aid allowance is a “sweetener to consider,” but he remained skeptical of the long-term savings.

“What happens in years six and seven?” he said. “All of the studies [to the costs and benefits] of regionalization point to the same things, and the question is, will this proposal address enough of those issues?”

Murphy hasn’t much weighed in on Sweeney’s latest legislative push, although his administration has supported a multitude of shared-service programs.

Nonetheless, when asked about school regionalization just last week, the governor acknowledged the hurdles in getting communities and schools to give up their local identities and control.

“Home rule is both our greatest asset and our greatest challenge,” Murphy said at a press event at a Fair Lawn middle school, where he announced the latest state aid distribution.

“While I can see the benefits of resources that can be pooled on a countywide basis, let’s talk about Fair Lawn,” he said. “Fair Lawn is really proud of its school system. It is a badge of honor. . .I don’t think that is something, personally, I want to mess with.”