SPARTA, NJ – A large crowd filled the Sparta High School media center on Dec. 6 to hear a panel discussion about school consolidation sponsored by New Jersey School Boards’ Association (NJSBA).
The thorough discussion of topic hit both sides of the issue. “Some say it is a panacea, some say it goes against home rule,” said Ray Pinney, NJSBA director of member engagement, asking that everyone put aside preconceptions.
“Forums like this help to us to achieve goals for our students,” NJSBA Vice President of County Activities and Greenwich Township Board of Education Member Christy Tighe said.
The panel included:
- Dr. Richard Bozza, executive director, New Jersey Association of School Administrators
- David Hespe, twice former Commissioner of Education for New Jersey, member of Governor-Elect Murphy’s transition team
- Dr. Louis Muenker, Superintendent, South Hunterdon Regional School District
- John Ropars, New Jersey Educators Association Uniserve Representative for Sussex County
- Michael Vranick, NJSBA director of Governmental Relations
Introductions were followed by a welcome from Ray Morris, president of Sussex County School Boards’ Association and remarks from Dr. Lawrence Feinsod, NJSBA executive director.
Feinsod said, “New Jersey School Boards’ Association encourages regionalization but recognize the voters in the region have the final say – not the state.”
A video was played giving a brief history of consolidation in New Jersey, beginning in 1893 when the state had 1408 school districts. Regionalization was incentivized in 1954 by the state. In 1999 a fund was established to cover the costs of feasibility studies through the Department of Consumer Affairs, called REDI.
“Those funds were taken up by municipalities and the fund has long expired,” according to the video.
Legislation encouraged regionalization in 1999 and shared services in 2007. The Executive County Superintendent office was created to study regionalization, Special Services Commissions and Vocational-Technical schools were merged without voter approval at that time as well.
Since 1982 there have been only five instances of regionalization, though many feasibility studies have been done. Even more never moved past the first step because of the cost of the study according to the presentation.
It had been 18 years since a regional district had been formed when voters approved the South Hunterdon Regional School district from three districts in 2014.
The process for regionalizing was outlined by the panel. The first step is to do a feasibility study which can cost a minimum of $50,000, according the Hespe. All of the districts involved in the proposed consolidation have to be on board and participate in the feasibility study.
The costs of the districts have to be reapportioned. It can be done on a cost per pupil basis or an equalized asset valuation, Hespe said.
“The best opportunity is for everyone to see it as a win-win to get voter approval,” Hespe said. “They also need to find ways to make it fair in the future. More regionalization have dissolved because of a change of circumstances.”
Broadly, the next step would be to promote the consolidation among the constituent schools. A referendum vote by the constituent towns has to be passed in all of the towns for a consolidation to occur.
Conversely, an existing regional district can be dissolved by a simple majority of the towns approving the measure. It is not that simple to uncouple districts however. The panel noted instances when litigation in the aftermath of a regional dissolution can take years to settle.
“We probably need more tools in the tool kit from the state to make it work,” Hespe said.
The cost of the feasibility study, the panel explained is only part of the financial equation to be considered for consolidation.
Districts merging will share the burden of debt, even debt already on the books for one of the consolidating schools.
Later during the question period, Scott MacKenzie, Hampton Township committeeman said, “Hampton Township has no debt. If we consolidated with Sparta we would have to pay for this $72 million school.”
He was told that was correct.
Salaries are another cost consideration.
Current law says the teachers’ contract for the district with the most teachers would be the one used for the newly consolidated district, NJSBA Deputy Executive Director Frank Belluscio confirmed. That would be the starting point for negotiating future contracts.
“Teachers with tenure cannot have their pay cut,” Ropars said, explaining another cost consideration.
Other cost considerations include the impact on the local property taxes and possible change in state and federal aid due to the change in the demographics of the newly consolidated district, according to the panel.
“It’s not going to happen quickly. It’s not going to happen easily. It’s not going to save as much money as some may think it will,” Ropars said.
The New Jersey Education Association does not have a formal policy regarding consolidation.
“We don’t want to see education diminish. We don’t want to see salaries diminish,” Ropers said. “A lot of stuff is mandated.”
Through a consolidation some schools may be closed adding to transportation costs, Ropers said.
Bozza addressed the cost issue as well.
“Administrative costs in New Jersey is fifth or sixth lowest in the nation. Only nine cents on the dollar are spent on administrators, superintendents and supervisors, in New Jersey.”
“Education Week ranked New Jersey near the top for education,” Pinney said. “New Jersey public schools spend below average on administrators with only six states lower.”
The panel discussed the impact of the state’s economy on funding for public schools, the funding formula, the tax levy cap and different pay scales in different counties.
Vranick said in addition to costs there are legislative road blocks to consolidation.
“[Senator] Oroho supports starting from ground zero to see what costs are, what the levies and salaries are, figure out what are the impediments and what could be done better,” Vranick said.
“Cost is the biggest barrier [to consolidation],” Hespe said. “How can we make sure it saves money and doesn’t hurt the kids.”
Muenker said the conversation about consolidating in South Hunderdon “began in the 1990, was on in 2004, off in 2005, the feasibility study was done in 2009, 2011 the study was completed, 2012 to 2013 discussions continued and in July of 2013 we started to go out to sell the concept of regionalization to the voters supported by pledges from the communities.”
“I’m here to share with you tonight you will not save a lot of money,” Muenker said. “It was more about the educational benefits.”
The goal was to get the students kindergarten through sixth grade on the same page educationally, before they came together in the high school that was already a regional school. The new district has 940 students.
They went from three superintendents who had shared roles as building principals to one superintendent and two and a half business administrators down to one.
“It’s taken two years to get comfortable with the heavy lifts,” Muenker said. His list of ‘heavy lifts’ put curriculum “at the top of the list.”
“We’re small and have had lots of challenges,” Muenker said. “You need a really good BA to deal with facilities, audits as well as merging policies and merging four contracts.”
“We also had to preserve school cultures such as school colors and mascots,” Muenkers said. “Almost all of the staff stayed the same.”
Muenkers said the state was not sure it would work because it had not been done in 18 years but the state did support them. They worked with the county and an attorney to get it all worked out.
“We believe its working,” Muenkers said. “We have a robust K through 12 academic program. I’m very proud of it. It worked for us but it wasn’t easy.”
Consolidation is not the only means for getting school districts to work with others. “There are many interlocal agreements,” Hespe said.
As the panels concluded their comments several people came to the microphone with questions.
Bozza confirmed districts can coordinate curriculum even if they are not unified, citing several Bergen County towns currently doing that.
“It can be the preferred route because of all of the hurdles. Shared services are more prevalent among districts and between municipalities. There has to be a willingness to work together.”
Ropars said, “Several districts in Sussex County have voluntarily cooperated with curriculum and texts.”
On a question about funding Ropars said New Jersey is dead last in federal funding - receiving only three percent. “We are 51st, including Washington DC. Local communities fund education at 65 percent. New Jersey is 46 in the country for state funding for education.”
On the question of sending and receiving districts in which students attend a school outside of their home town through tuition, Hespe said “it is a win-win and keep in mind tuition is not subject to the two percent cap.”
A Vernon school board member wanted to know how the levy cap is calculated after a consolidation. Muenker said the voters knew the levy at the time of the vote and the cap would kick in after the first budget.
A resident of Byram and New Jersey Taxpayers Association executive said that the panel “needed to get a better attitude” on the topic of consolidation accusing them of being “unprepared for Sussex County” and of being “lobbyists that help mold the legislation.” After several in the audience called out for him to ask a question he queried the panel about attending a meeting in the future if he organized it. They all agreed.
“You need to know what the reality is,” Ropars said. “There is no way to go forward if you do not know what the obstacles are.”
Sparta parent Jennifer Granna asked about the merger of the school boards in a consolidation. She asked if there was an increase in the number of board members and that it was a concern that parents might not have a voice. Muenkers said the county appointed a board of education after interviewing interested current board of education members from the constituent towns. At first all four boards remained. Then after the referendum the consolidated board remained.
A question was asked about county consolidation. Ropars and Vrancik said “it would be next to impossible to work with 35 salary schedules” and “all sides would have to hammer out the details.”
“That is a great example of the unique challenge,” Hespe said. “From the get go you need to know what your reasonable expectations and goals are. It is worth doing but you need to know from the start what the expectations and goals are.”
Hespe spoke about how limited purpose regionalizations and all purpose regionalizations were not designed to see significant reductions to tax bills. “It was to positively impact education.” He reiterated his earlier point that the districts have to decide on the goal of the merger and “backward map to get there.”
A Roxbury Board of Education member petitioned the panel to lobby to have the REDI funds reinstated as Roxbury and Mount Arlington are trying to consolidate.
Pinney said the NJSBA supports that as well.
“The large public participation in this panel discussion showed that our citizens are interested in asking questions and learning more about school regionalization,” Newton Superintendent Dr. Kennedy Greene said. “We know that consolidating any public entities is not without its challenges, and yet some communities may find the benefits are worth considering.”