School regionalization plan appears to be on fast track

Sweeney bill, with support of powerful players, wins quick endorsement from Senate Education Committee
State Senate President Steve Sweeney

After years of prep work, a sweeping bill urging New Jersey’s hundreds of school districts to join in broader regional systems won quick — very quick — backing Tuesday and could be on a fast track to a full vote in the state Senate in coming weeks.

Filed last week, the long-expected bill crafted by state Senate President Steve Sweeney would revise the state’s process for school districts to study and then implement school regionalizations. And it includes some new financial incentives for those that pursue combined operations.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has touted the measure as the state’s best shot yet to bring greater efficiencies to a state public-education system notorious for its more than 600 separate school districts.

And in its first formal hearing Tuesday, not only did the Senate Education Committee give it the expected blessing in almost record time, most of the state’s major education groups also got behind it.

“We want to express our support for the general approach of the bill,” testified Debra Bradley, lobbyist for the state’s principals and supervisors association. “It provides real-world incentives for districts to voluntarily choose this move.”

The New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union and a close ally of Gov. Phil Murphy, said it also would support the measure — albeit with some yet-specified amendments. “We do have a few tweaks to the bill,” said Francine Pfeffer, an NJEA lobbyist.

And one of the state’s major business groups also joined in. “We need bills like this,” said Chris Emigholz, vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “Structural reform is needed in this state.”

Lickety-split signoff

The deliberation on the bill took all of seven minutes and came at the tail end of a busy hour-plus agenda for the committee, much of it focused on bills to address more immediate education needs around the pandemic.

The next step is the bill will likely move to the Senate budget committee before coming to a vote of the full Senate. A necessary companion bill has yet to be filed in the Assembly.

Sweeney has made the regionalization measure almost a personal quest as a central plank in his “Path to Progress” campaign to bring efficiencies to state and local governments.

The Senate president and his staff have spent the better part of two years lining up support and early adherents to the idea. One hallmark of that effort is the backing of a key Republican, with Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) signing on as a prime sponsor alongside Monmouth Democrat, Sen. Vin Gopal.

But maybe even more notable are the districts already saying they may be interested. For example, a feasibility study is already underway to make rural Salem County a countywide school system, and several other districts have also already undertaken new studies.

Such studies are hardly new, and there’s more than a few of them sitting in state file cabinets from previous regionalization pushes. But maybe the biggest turning point this time was the late addition to the bill that would ease state aid cuts to districts that embark on the regionalization path.

Under the measure, districts losing state aid would see those cuts spread out over an additional four years. The bill would also call for the state to absorb the full cost of the feasibility studies.

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