After school aid reforms signed into law last year moved millions of dollars from some districts to others that were underfunded, school districts impacted had a decision to make: Make major cuts and continue with the status quo, or look for efficiencies.
Now, that decision may be made for them under state Sen. President Steve Sweeney’s plan to merge all sending and receiving districts that are not currently K-12, a bill that was introduced in the Senate in May.
Some schools saw the funding reforms as a call to action, but not all local districts are on board with the idea of merging with larger districts to save money, even if they may be required.
“We’re doing everything we can to explore a partnership with other districts,” Weymouth school board President Edward Zebedies Jr. said. “We’re looking after the best interests educationally of our community. We have to. It’s a matter of survival.”
Weymouth Township school officials have been fighting the reduction in state aid in Trenton while also exploring their options with neighboring districts. There are fewer than 200 students who attend the K-8 school building there, and the district already sends its high school students to Buena Regional.
“At the moment, merger is a high priority. We’re investigating our options. We’re leaning more toward shared services,” Zebedies said.
In April, when Sweeney visited Stockton University for a discussion on his Path to Progress plan, Weymouth school board member Henry Goldsmith asked the senator about funding for consolidation studies. Sweeney said money would be made available.
The final 2020 state budget mirrored closely the budget approved by legislators but reduced the total funding for the school district consolidation study grant from $48 million to $10 million.
“Finding ways to reduce property taxes is the legislature’s No. 1 goal, and the promotion of school consolidation is a key component of the Path to Progress. While $10 million will get us started in helping school districts conduct studies on the best ways to facilitate the mergers, more would have been better. Whether it’s through shared services, transitional aid, or money to support local parks, we are disappointed this administration fails to recognize the need to keep property taxes in check,” Sweeney said about the cuts.
Zebedies said the district hasn’t heard anything more about the consolidation study grants.
As part of Sweeney’s proposed bill, within the first three months, districts would develop their own consolidation plans. Any districts without a plan would have a plan developed for them by the executive county superintendent and all costs of the studies would be borne by the State. Districts would have two years to consolidate if approved by the commissioner.
Statewide, more than 270 districts would be eliminated under Sweeney’s plan. In South Jersey, almost 80% of the school districts would be affected. State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he believes that is a decision that should be made on the local level, not by the state.
“While we should always look for ways to save working families money, we have to remember the devil is in the details. And with the state’s history of creating winners and losers as recently as the funding formula in this year’s budget, we need to guarantee no one’s taxes go up or the quality of education goes down in one community for the benefit of another community as a result of state managed consolidation,” Brown said.
Upper Township, which operates a large K-8 district and sends its high school students to Ocean City, doesn’t see merging into a K-12 district as an option.
“With three functioning buildings, 300 staff members and 1,400 students, there are no viable reasons, nor associated savings, for us to consider any proposed consolidation arrangements for our district,” Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said. “Hopefully, if that particular plan continues to gain support, elected officials will find the time to talk with school administrators, face to face, so that they can receive accurate, meaningful information that directly contradicts their current understanding of consolidation; prior to any official adoption or resolution.”
Upper Township school board President Michele Barbieri added that the district already does a number of shared services.
“It is disappointing that the budget amount for studies was reduced as a number of districts who would consider consolidation but lost significant funding due to S2 may have entered into those studies if grant funding available. Now they are forced to balance budgets on the heels of S2 and the reallocation of aid,” Barbieri said.
John Thomas, acting superintendent for Cape May City, said his district is also not considering consolidation at this time. The district operates an elementary school building in the city and sends its older students to the Lower Cape May Regional School District.
“We are currently sharing several services locally with the City of Cape May, Lower Cape May Regional, and the County Special Services/Tech schools. We are also part of a handful of local and statewide co-ops and consortiums that exist solely to increase the buying power of smaller districts like ours for goods and services,” Thomas said. “We are always looking to find shared services with other public agencies, as long as they are cost effective, yet still provide the highest quality of service to our students, staff, and community.”