Salem County residents recently heard the results of a feasibility study on a proposed unification of Salem County’s school districts.
The Salem County Board of Commissioners hired Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, P.C., which has been involved in each major state school district reconfiguration over the last twenty years, to conduct a thorough analysis of the educational and financial benefits and detriments of a unified district, with the goals being to improve the quality of instruction, ensure educational equity and maximize savings of taxpayer dollars.
The law firm worked with a wide array of educators throughout Salem County to compose a thorough report and analysis and presented its findings Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Salem County Community College. The meetings were well attended and also livestreamed.
The study concluded that the dissolution of a new pre-K-12 countywide regional school district or two regional-based pre-12 regional school districts would “have clear educational benefits for the students of all communities,” according to an executive summary of the study.
While either option would result in cost savings, the consultants noted that a single countywide district “results in increased savings and increased opportunities for educational improvement over the two regional-based PK-12 districts.”
Both options were compared with the status quo, including a discussion of the educational, racial and financial implications of the proposed education scenarios.
It is up to the residents of the communities involved to decide whether to move forward with a referendum, which would allow voters in each community to decide how their children are educated and their tax dollars are spent.
The Single-District Option
According to the executive summary of the feasibility study, the schools have a surplus of seating, which will continue into the future. “As it is anticipated that all children will continue to be educated in the same buildings in which they currently are housed, reconfiguration alone would not change the racial make-up of these schools,” the summary states. “Therefore, there would be no negative racial impact upon creating a countywide regional school district.”
The consultants found that students in all of the schools of the county would have the opportunity to receive a higher quality education in the event that a unified county-based system is approved by the voters and implemented. The consultants also believe that there would be a substantial opportunity for the improvement of programs and services for special populations as greater expertise and efficiency is developed at the county level. “Finally, a countywide system not only will facilitate coordination across educational providers but across workforce development entities in the county,” the summary states.
According to the executive summary, “Based on a review of the audited financials of the districts and the charter school, and applying these methodologies, the consultants have concluded that countywide regionalization could result in an overall annual tax levy savings of $6,850,000 due to a number of identified costs. The redundancy in central office positions account for much of the savings.”
Option Two: Creation of Two Pre-K-12 Regional School Districts (North and South)
The consultants also examined an alternative scenario involving dividing the county in half, resulting in a Northern Salem Regional district and a Southern Salem Regional district.
According to the executive summary, in this scenario, the Northern Regional would consist of 62-64% of the countywide enrollment in the next 10 years while the Southern Regional would consist of 36-38%. In addition, the racial make-up of each district would be fairly similar.
The consultants concluded that both regionals would be of sufficient size to put into place the centralized functions in such areas as curriculum and instruction, data collection and analysis, professional development, programs for special populations, human resources and talent recruitment, and school safety that would make regionalization a desirable option. “We note, however, that the smaller sized regional districts may not have the budget to develop the capacity to deliver the anticipated full range of expertise and supports in the areas described above and, therefore, may be less effective in doing so (when compared to a full unified county regional option),” the summary states. “On the other hand, the North-South scenario may make initiatives such as increasing school choice easier to accomplish given the more compact nature of the regional. It also may make such functions as transportation and joint program development easier given the smaller number of schools and geographic area.”
The report adds, “The ability of the two new regional boards of education to understand the educational issues of the various communities at a detailed level and communicate with the various stakeholders also would be easier under a North-South scenario than under a countywide proposal.”
In terms of financial implications, however, the newly established northern and southern regionals are estimated to generate annual savings of $3.8 million and $1 million, respectively. “The combined total of $4.8 million is about $2 million less than the savings generated from the full unified county regional,” according to the summary of the feasibility study.
New Jersey has about 600 public school districts — more than its number of municipalities.
In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill, S3488, which gave school districts incentives to study consolidation, including countywide and regional school districts.
Under the new law, the state will pay interested school districts for half of the cost of such a study. Districts can receive the other half of the funding after the study is completed and accepted by a new program in the state Department of Community Affairs.
The NJSBA supported the bill as school districts that apply for grants are not required to go through a merger if they pursue such a study.
Visit this page to access the feasibility study noted in this article, the executive summary and a slideshow on the findings.