Has time finally come for school consolidation?

Sweeney bill prompts districts to study regionalization as it heads toward law
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor’s Office; CC BY-NC 2.0)
File photo: Senate President Steve Sweeney, Oct. 14, 2020

In 1993, New Jersey enacted its last major piece of legislation aimed at overhauling the state’s Byzantine structure for public education, then comprising more than 600 separate school districts.

The law set a process for voluntarily regionalizing schools and spelled out who would pay for what. Feasibility studies were conducted, and promises were made.

Nearly three decades later, it has basically been a wash: Three school regionalizations have taken place, yet in three other instances, districts were broken up further.

“To say that we in a quarter century haven’t advanced the ball (on regionalizations) is not an understatement,” said Vito Gagliardi Jr., a prominent school attorney who has handled half of those cases.

But change — or at least the prospect of it — seems imminent. Sweeping legislation led by state Senate President Steve Sweeney that adds new financial incentives to the urge to merge swept through the Senate on Thursday and looks toward passage in the Assembly.

One district, one county

And if the bill is signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, there appear to be some ready takers interested in at least pursuing the idea. In more than a dozen districts across the state, new studies are underway, including one in Salem County for what may be the state’s first countywide system there.

The feasibility studies are the critical first step toward regionalization, looking at intricacies of budgets, busing routes and other details of school operations to determine how they would each look in different configurations.

“It’s time that we started to make sense out of the nonsensical amount of school districts in different regions,” said state Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), the prime sponsor for the companion bill in the Assembly whose district includes Salem County.

“School regionalization can save money that we would be able to put back into our students, teachers and classrooms,” Burzichelli said in an email last week. “We need to review where we are, and if it is effective, especially cost effective …We know we cannot continue to operate in the same way if it is exhausting tax dollars.”

Out of many, one

Getting a head start on the process, Gagliardi has been hired to conduct the Salem County study on behalf of the county board of commissioners, looking at the possibility of combining all or part of the county’s 20 school districts into one administrative structure. Salem’s three charter schools and the county vocational district would at least be part of the study, he said.

Gagliardi said he expects the study to be completed in April, with a public process to follow about which configurations make sense. And he sought to dampen expectations that a countywide district — a huge step for the state — is the only option.

“One of the misnomers is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition,” Gagliardi said. “But even if only half of the districts joined, it would be an extraordinary development.”

Along with studies underway in districts from Cape May to Sussex, Sweeney’s legislation and its expected passage are clearly a pivot point in the decades of discussions about regionalization, especially with this proposal’s significant financial incentives.

The most notable financial benefit is an opportunity for districts facing cuts in state aid, of which there are nearly 200, to slow down those reductions over time. If passed, the bill would also provide for considerable transition help for regionalization, including the costs of studies and other preparations.

The additional rewards are enough that even the state’s major education groups with the biggest stake in consolidating schools have lined up in support.

Other districts already planning feasibility studies include:

  • The K-12 Pinelands Regional, looking to join with its sending districts in Little Egg Harbor, Bass River, Tuckerton and Eagleswood;
  • Roosevelt Borough, looking to merge into Upper Freehold, Freehold or Millstone;
  • Atlantic Highlands, Highlands and Sea Bright looking to merge into one regional school district.

Sixteen other districts have gone public in pursuing studies:

  • The K-12 Belvidere district in Warren County, joining with its sending districts in Harmony, Hope and White Township sending districts;
  • Watchung Hills Regional, joining with its sending districts in Warren, Watchung, Long Hill and Green Brook in Somerset and Morris Counties;
  • Wildwood joining with its North Wildwood, West Wildwood and Wildwood Crest sending districts in Cape May County.

“There is now both a significant carrot and a significant stick,” Gagliardi said. “After 28 years, this law is designed to do something different.”