Regionalizing Schools Can Reshape Education: Opinion
Star-Ledger Guest Columnist | The Star-Ledger
As New Jersey schools prepare to open, another year of challenges for each and every school board lies ahead.
Taxpayer money is tighter than ever; the 2 percent state-mandated spending cap has already forced many schools to eliminate gifted and talented programs, languages, elective classes and extracurricular activities. Many of our 602 separate school districts can no longer provide cost-effective and efficient management of our schools.
But there is one grassroots effort in New Jersey that is trying to find ways to better serve their students and ensure a more sustainable future for their schools.
Next month, the voters of Lambertville, Stockton and West Amwell in Hunterdon County will decide whether they want to dissolve the existing South Hunterdon Regional High School and authorize the creation of a regional pre-K-to-12 district.
South Hunterdon’s journey began six years ago. All four school boards, facing ever-increasing costs, began investigating the advantages to students and taxpayers of becoming a single school district, with one administration and a unified curriculum.
They formed the South Hunterdon Regionalization Committee to study the benefits of combining the educational resources of three pre-K-to-6 school districts and one 7-12 district. Voters became part of the collaborative effort by approving a referendum to fund a study to assess potential educational improvements and administrative efficiencies.
Following the study, all four school boards, the regionalization committee, three local governing bodies, the Hunterdon County freeholders, four school administrators and the state Department of Education unanimously endorsed the dissolution of all four school districts and creation of one new regional school district.
Some stakeholders are supporting the elimination of their own jobs or elected positions for the sake of the children and taxpayers. If the South Hunterdon initiative is successful, we will reduce the number of statewide school districts by three. This is a critical first step to controlling public education spending in New Jersey.
But most important, New Jersey does not need the state Supreme Court to change the local school-funding formula. When a new regional school district is formed, a new funding formula can also be placed on the ballot.
The South Hunterdon Regionalization Committee recognized that the existing funding formula of 50 percent equalized property evaluation, and 50 percent student enrollment would not give every town the financial incentive to support regionalization. They are proposing a new funding formula that distributes the cost of education to the towns by 57 percent equalized property evaluation and 43 percent student population, allowing every town to “win.”
Each of the three towns could see reductions in school taxes if voters say “yes.”
South Hunterdon has shown us that the solution rests in the hands of the people.
That is what makes this a significant election both locally and statewide.
With a “yes” vote, the voters of South Hunterdon will create a more sustainable school district and more options for the way we provide and fund education in New Jersey.
However, if any one of the three communities votes “no,” then these towns will most likely be facing ballot questions to exceed the 2 percent cap. And all of the innovative work, commitment and money that has been expended to create a sustainable future for their public schools will have been wasted.
All New Jersey taxpayers and students should be rooting for the voters of West Amwell, Stockton and Lambertville to support this ballot initiative on Sept. 24.
South Hunterdon voters need courage to take the first step for all of us. They need to be the leaders. Schools around New Jersey are watching.