The vote this week to combine three small school districts in southern Hunterdon County was historic, the first formal merger approved in a state where home rule is almost sacrosanct in nearly 20 years.
Whether it will set a precedent is another question.
By landslide margins, the voters of Lambertville, West Amwell, and Stockton approved a pair of referendums on Tuesday that effectively created a new, starting in 2014.
Each of the three towns has its own elementary school, board, and administration. And each sends its students on to South Hunterdon Regional High School. All three of elementary schools will remain -- at least for now -- but the new district will be all under one administration and school board.
The turnout was pretty good for a school vote, at to 30 percent in some of the communities. The message was unequivocal: nearly nine in 10 voters supported regionalization.
The unofficial tallies on the two measures – one to dissolve the existing districts and the other to create a new one -- were as follows:
Daniel Seiter, chairman of the South County Regionalization Committee that led the campaign, said it was a lesson in both perseverance and cooperation.
“It takes very cooperative communities,” said Seiter, also president of the South Hunterdon High School board. “We started this in 2009 with a committee of board members, council members, and residents, and it was very collaborative. We wanted to be sure that everyone would be a winner.”
One invaluable step, he said, was deciding in 2011 to test the waters and place a referendum on the ballot to fund a feasibility study. “That gave us an informal sense of how our communities felt about it.”
But in a state where regionalization has long been on politicians’ lips but rarely realized, there are few assurances that others communities will follow suit anytime soon.
There have been countless studies and initiatives concerning the concept over the past few decades, and possibly further back. By one estimate, more than a dozen task forces, reports, and studies have been dedicated to regionalization since 1969.
More recently, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration and the Legislature in 2007 made an especially hard push, passing a law that required proposals be drawn up by the Department of Education's county offices. But that push never came to shove once Gov. Chris Christie took office. Other initiatives took priority, leaving legislative sponsors openly saying that Christie is all but ignoring the law.
Michael Kaelber, the New Jersey School Boards Association’s legal and policy director, has closely tracked regionalization efforts in the state and said the South Hunterdon vote was clearly noteworthy, given the last successful one was in 1995 with the creation of Somerset Hills Regional.
“This is quite a development, the first in many, many years,” he said. “Certainly there have been lots of discussions but nothing definitive going forward.”
But he hardly viewed it as a harbinger. Actually, there are more efforts underway from individual communities to break away from regional districts than to create new ones. The state’s Board of School Reviews is currently considering a petition for Woodcliff Lake to withdraw from Pascack Valley Regional.
Kaelber said there are usually winners and losers in any move to regionalize, often involving costs and governance. That's why getting all affected districts to agree to a regionalization presents a very high hurdle. And the pull of home rule and local identity is ever strong.
That may help explain why a sort of semi-regionalization has evolved. Districts share services and administrative functions, including state incentives, which helps bring cost savings without the step of giving up the control and governance.
“If they can’t be regionals, some say they can at least act like regionals,” Kaelber said.
Cost pressures will only mount, with less state aid in the offing and strict caps on property taxes and spending. “What you may see is for the really, really small districts, having that individual identity is something they can’t afford,” he said.
But it will take a while to see many more. “The issues that preclude districts [from regionalizing] haven’t gone away,” Kaelber added.
Seiter, the South Hunterdon committee chair, said these were all part of the equation for his district, too. He said it was critical to find right balance in how much each community would pay into the new regional district so that none of them would see a significant shift from the current distribution.
“If any one community was to be hit hard, that would have sunk it right there,” he said.
And most important, Seiter said, is that it took literally years to educate the communities to the benefits of aligning programs into a single K-12 district.
“Every community struggled with this decision, every community wondered why mess with something that worked,” he said. “So town halls, small coffees, we made sure that residents were as knowledgeable as we could.”