By Dr. Larry Feinsod

Looking toward the new year, there should be little doubt that the recommendations in the August 2018 “Path to Progress” report will serve as a blueprint for proposed legislation to implement fiscal reform at the state, county, municipal and school district levels.

The product of a select working group created by the Legislature, the report paints an ominous picture of our state’s financial future—one that won’t be avoided without seismic change in how government operates. According to the working group, its proposed reforms will be essential to curing New Jersey’s severe public employee pension and health benefits liabilities (cited by the Pew Charitable Trusts as the worst in the nation); to ensuring cost-efficient and effective government operation, and to reducing property taxes (another “worst” for our state).

The New Jersey School Boards Association has supported many of the proposals cited in the report, or similar initiatives, ranging from public employee health benefits reform to state funding of extraordinary special education placement.

One set of recommendations on which the jury is out, as far as NJSBA is concerned, involves school district regionalization. The report calls for the following:

  • “Merge all K-4, K-5, K-6, K-8 and K-9 school districts into K-12 regional districts to improve the quality of education and promote efficiency.”
  • “Permit the establishment of two countywide school district pilot programs.”

During a forum at NJSBA’s November 17 Delegate Assembly, former Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy, who played a major role in a regionalization plan during the administration of Governor Jon Corzine, said a statewide K-12 school district structure would benefit all students. Mark Magyar, a key staffer for Senate President Steve Sweeney, noted that the goal of the proposal is not to close individual schools or transfer students out of their home communities.

Certainly, there can be educational and financial benefits to regionalization. However, there are instances where it would not work. That’s why changes in school district structure must be considered on a case-by-case basis after thorough study of the educational and financial impact and due deliberation by the local boards of education—and only with the approval of the communities involved.

NJSBA’s long-standing policies and positions on school district regionalization will guide us in the future debate over legislation on school district merger. Let me summarize them here:

  • NJSBA supports school district efforts to regionalize when there are financial benefits and, above all else, educational benefits for the students. I might add that we assisted the communities involved in New Jersey’s most recent regionalization effort, the creation of the K-12 South Hunterdon Regional School District in 2013.
  • The decision to regionalize must be made by the voters in each affected community.
  • The state’s role should not be to force merger, but rather to encourage and facilitate the study of regionalization at the local level and remove financial disincentives.

That last point is critical if communities are to consider regionalization with an objective eye. From our observations, when school districts have considered regionalization, they’ve done so for educational reasons. The deal breakers have been financial, and they include:

  • Cost reapportionment and changes in school property tax levies;
  • Acquisition of another district’s debt;
  • Reduced state and federal aid resulting from changes in districtwide wealth;
  • Increased employment costs due to (a) requirements that the salary guide of the largest district be imposed on the new regional system and (b) certain provisions of seniority regulations, and
  • Lack of funding for feasibility studies.

Earlier this year, NJSBA prepared a report on “Impediments to School District Regionalization,” recommending amendment to statute and code to remove these obstacles, or ameliorate their negative financial impact. These changes would pave the way for regionalization to be a viable option for more school districts. The report can be accessed at www.njsba.org/regionalization2018.

I urge our lawmakers to read NJSBA’s report.

If the Legislature is serious about advancing school district merger—and doing it without adversely affecting students and taxpayers—it should make these necessary changes in law and regulation, and leave the final decision up to the voters in each community.

These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected]. Follow me on Twitter: @DrLarryFeinsod

December 11, 2018