SPARTA, NJ – Last week Newton Mayor Wayne Levante addressed the Sparta township council looking for support for his plan to call for the consolidation of all public schools into a county system.  In his comments he referenced legislation sponsored by Senator Steve Oroho that supported Levante’s postion.

Oroho said he had co-sponsored legislation two years in a row that called for a study of the regionalization issue.  It had passed in the senate but he was “not sure why it never got movement in the assembly.”

His proposal was to “put together a task force not unlike the one on which he served on unemployment.”  The idea was to “start the conversation.” 

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Oroho said “he did not have any preconceived model to push for” such as the one Levante is espousing.  Oroho said it would be good to talk about “how we do things,” and to find out “what are the barriers, what are the unintended consequences.”

Oroho acknowledged when it comes to public education in New Jersey it is unlikely that one single solution would be appropriate for all districts.  He said “where consolidation may work for some, shared services might work for others.”  Oroho also talked about having alternative districts or “Centers of Excellence,” as another option to be considered in the consolidation discussion. 

The senator recognized there are some “state impediments” to regionalization and they need to be explored.  He also said some of the barriers to regionalization are from “powerful organizations,” and that there are “contractual issues” to be considered as well. 

He also cautioned that if not done correctly Federal aid might be lost.

Any change to the educational model in New Jersey would have to be rolled out incrementally, to be able to identify and fix any negative unintended consequences, according to Oroho.  “There is always going to be a transition plan, to get to a new model.”

Levante also cautioned the council members to be “wary of board of education members, because they just want to keep their job.”  He said they “won’t do a study.”

Sparta Superintendent Dr. Michael Rossi delivered a response to Levante’s comments and proposal, on behalf of the Sparta Board of Education:

“The concept of providing the best educational opportunities for the students of Sparta in the most efficient and cost effective manner as possible has been and always will be the primary objective of the Sparta Board of Education.  Accordingly, consolidation of programs and services is worthy of continued investigation.  Currently, there are many examples of districts sharing personnel, partnering on services, and together offering programs and professional opportunities.  These have helped to curb costs while maintaining a commitment to high quality learning experiences for all students.    

The idea of consolidated school districts is not new, with state and local task forces having looked at the idea during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.  Each of those studies identified numerous issues, risks, and benefits.  We would expect that the same issues would arise and need to be addressed, not only in terms of potential fiscal savings, but also those surrounding governance, local control, curriculum, personnel, transportation, union contracts, facility consolidations, and the like.

The recent proposal from Mayor Levante of Newton is currently just a concept without any valid data, fiscal projections, or operational changes, all of which would need to be vetted in order to assess its viability.  In addition, it does not address the myriad State and NJ Department of Education regulatory changes that would need to occur in order to implement a county-wide consolidated school system.  It is not as easy as saying ‘Florida, Maryland, and Pennsylvania have it, so we should be able to adopt their models’ (or versions thereof), without taking into consideration associated regulatory requirements and specific issues that affect Sussex County and New Jersey.

We agree with the Sparta Town Council that in order to assess the viability to further pursue this plan requires more details and specific goals.  This is paramount in order to establish a full and complete assessment of any restructuring plan while maintaining the high educational standards that we have achieved and continue to provide the children of Sparta, Sussex County, and the State of New Jersey.  This endeavor will require the involvement and input from all stakeholders, including state and local governments, boards of education, educators, administrators, financial and operational restructuring experts, and members of the community to ensure that any proposed changes can increase efficiency and cost savings while maintaining and improving the educational standards that we currently enjoy.  

School systems are much more than teachers and students in classrooms.  They provide opportunities for cultural, social, and civic engagement.  How this reality unfolds is unique to each community, and those distinctive features are what traditions are founded upon.  It is that component of our educational and municipal structures that makes New Jersey an attractive place to live, work, and raise children.  It is why so many of our towns have second, third, and fourth generations represented in their neighborhoods.”