In December 2019, as the driving rain that would later turn to snow pounded the parking lot outside Pinelands Regional High School in Ocean County, I met for two hours with a remarkable group of superintendents, school board members, principals and business administrators from Pinelands Regional, Little Egg Harbor, Tuckerton and Bass River school districts. Pinelands Regional serves students in seventh through 12th grades from Tuckerton and Little Egg Harbor, Bass River and Eagleswood townships.

The group was engaged in a neighborly conversation, talking about entering into a study to create one regional K-12 district to provide better educational opportunities and curriculum coordination for their students and savings for their taxpayers.

Melissa McCooley was already the shared superintendent for Pinelands and Little Egg Harbor after her K-6 board (Little Egg Harbor) had urged her to apply for the Pinelands vacancy as a joint position. She and others at the meeting had grown up locally and gone to school together.

Bass River, located across the border in Burlington County, was struggling to make its budget work with just 85 students and would actually decide to enter into a send-receive relationship with Little Egg Harbor effective July 1, 2020. Eagleswood, another K-6 district with 119 students that also sends to Pinelands, would sign on to participate in the study before the application went in.

As I left the meeting that day, I thought this is how regionalization is supposed to work. There was no fear about loss of identity, home rule, job losses, debt service or contracts. They sent their kids to the same middle school and high school, they rooted side-by-side in the bleachers for their Wildcats in the Shore Conference, and they were going to focus on downsizing by attrition rather than by going through a reduction in force.   

They were going to make it work, and their ideas — and insights we gathered from talking with school administrators, board members, teachers and parents all across the state — helped shape the grant program we put together last year with the Murphy Administration and its “shared services czars,” Nicolas Platt and Jordan Glatt, who have been charged with promoting government efficiency. These ideas and insights also helped shape the incentives for voluntary school consolidation contained in the bipartisan legislation that I am sponsoring with Senators Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).

Today, Pinelands Regional is putting together its regionalization plan with a $90,000 grant from the state’s Local Efficiency Achievement Program (LEAP), which is administered by the Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs.

A similar $108,525 LEAP-funded study is underway in Monmouth and Mercer counties where Roosevelt, a tiny district whose historic schoolhouse features Depression-era murals by famed artist Ben Shahn, is exploring regionalization options with East Windsor Regional, Upper Freehold and Freehold Borough.

Furthermore, Salem County, which I represent in the Legislature, has a $143,000 LEAP grant to study the feasibility of merging all of its school systems into New Jersey’s first countywide school district.

Salem County is the smallest county in the state, with just 65,000 residents and fewer than 11,000 students attending 14 separate school districts. Some of these one-schoolhouse districts have eighth grade graduating classes with as few as 13 students, as I learned when I held roundtables with mayors and superintendents. That’s far below the optimal class size and too small to offer the diverse curriculum that middle school students have a right to expect. It’s also inefficient: Salem County spends 22% more per pupil than nearby Vineland, which has about the same number of students.

Coupled with the successful South Hunterdon Regional School District consolidation and other regionalization studies recently completed involving districts in Sussex, Morris and Monmouth counties, these three LEAP grant studies can serve as a blueprint for other districts throughout the state to consider school regionalization plans that would be in the best interests of their students and taxpayers.

We added $7 million to the budget in September to fund school regionalization studies and other shared services initiatives, and we would like to see many more districts apply for these grants. Every school district in New Jersey is unique, and we will learn something new about best practices and how to overcome barriers to regionalization from every study that is completed.

In addition to the grants, we have an even more significant financial enticement to offer school districts that are willing to voluntarily move toward K-12 regionalization and countywide school district initiatives.

We recognize that the overwhelming majority of small K-6 and K-8 one-building school districts with shrinking enrollments are among those facing the loss of the remaining 80% of their Adjustment Aid under S-2. We passed that legislation in 2018 to restore fairness to the school funding formula under the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) by eliminating the growth caps that underfunded districts educating 72% of New Jersey’s schoolchildren, while maintaining “hold harmless” Adjustment Aid for districts with declining enrollment based on how many students they had nearly 15 years ago.

To provide a financial incentive for districts that should be considering regionalization to move forward, our legislation stretches out the reduction of Adjustment Aid from four years to eight years for districts engaged in regionalization studies and moving forward on regionalization or countywide school districts. Districts conducting regionalization studies that do not decide to move forward in the following year would revert to the former state aid schedule.

This eliminates one of the biggest barriers to regionalization — the disincentive contained in the current school consolidation law that requires newly created merged districts to have their state aid recalculated immediately based on the SFRA formula. For Adjustment Aid districts, this would trigger immediate aid cuts that would make any school board rightfully torpedo any regionalization plan. It also recognizes that there are legitimate start-up costs to regionalization that need to be covered.

Our push for regionalization was one of the principal recommendations of the bipartisan Economic and Fiscal Workgroup’s Education Committee headed by Rutgers Professor Ray Caprio and former Education Commissioner Lucille Davy in 2018, and it builds on the regionalization initiative put together by Davy that was abandoned in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession.

We recognize that school officials are grappling with the tremendous educational challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but that experience also underscores the need to move forward. Small one-school districts with a few hundred students that would have liked to have offered a mix of hybrid and remote learning during the pandemic are finding they cannot do so because they do not have enough staff to do both.

Our legislation provides school board members, administrators, teachers and parents broad flexibility in designing K-12 regional or countywide school district implementation plans that work for them. Like the existing law, it preserves the ability of regionalizing districts to base cost share on tax base, enrollment or any percentage of the two.

It provides greater flexibility on teacher contracts, leaving the existing contracts in place until the next contract negotiation with the merged union for the consolidated district. It provides districts with flexibility to decide how to handle existing debt service or the sale of buildings that are no longer needed.

Creating larger districts will create greater diversity in a state that is facing potential litigation over desegregation, and in fact, our legislation specifically prohibits any regionalization plan that would reduce diversity.

In the long run, school districts — and taxpayers —- will save money through consolidation. Districts with fewer than 500 students spend 17% more per pupil than school districts with more than 1,000 students — even though those districts include virtually all of the urban districts with high percentages of “at risk” students and virtually all of the regional high schools, which are supposed to be spending more money than smaller elementary K-6 and K-8 districts.

But it’s not just about the money —it’s about the quality and richness of the educational experience for students in the smallest districts. School officials from one of the first districts that I met with to discuss a potential K-12 regionalization plan in 2019 said they were planning to use the first anticipated savings from their merger to pay for science labs in the new middle school that students from the three towns would all attend.

In 2021, every schoolchild in New Jersey should have access to lab science in middle school as part of the “thorough and efficient education” guaranteed by our New Jersey Constitution.

We are proud that our public schools are ranked first in the nation, and we need to provide the best educational experience we can for all of our schoolchildren. That must be the foundation of every school regionalization plan.

Senator Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland) serves as president of the New Jersey Senate.