Cape Issues is a group of Cape May County citizens who gather monthly to focus on issues they see as vital to the welfare of the county. As the Herald reported in an article on Nov. 6, Cape Issues is considering the recommendations of the state’s Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup, a state task force concerning the consolidation of school districts into K-12 regional school systems. That article called for public comment which is still welcome.
At its November meeting, Cape Issues took up the discussion of the state’s proposals and expanded the discussion to one of the centrality of education to the county’s welfare.
Quality and diversity of programs were discussed as were the needed links between career readiness programs and county workforce and economic development goals.
No discussion of education is ever had that does not also touch on the question of costs. This is particularly true in an environment where local property taxes are heavily weighted by the rate needed to support school district budgets.
In recommending school district consolidation, the task force did not hide the fact that one of its principal goals was reducing the school budget burden on property taxes.
“Reform designed to reduce the administrative costs of public education without negatively impacting services provided to students is critical to controlling the growth of property taxes.” That sentence was in the first paragraph of the task force’s reform on educational reform.
The Cape Issues discussion looked at the state recommendations as too constrained. It is not enough to avoid negatively impacting services to students.
The goals, many of Cape Issues said, must be using any educational reform effort to improve the quality of the education delivered to county students.
The state report made overtures to quality improvements but spent little space explaining what would be achieved and how.
“These recommendations are designed primarily to improve the quality of education and, secondarily, to save money,” the report states.
The report cites the benefit of having a fully integrated curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade so that students arrive at transition points, particularly the transition to high school, with similar educational backgrounds and skills.
It also notes the potential benefit of a more diversified curriculum with students at what were smaller school districts then able to benefit from educational resources offered by the larger regional system.
What form consolidation would take in Cape May County is unclear. Options exist. One possibility is a system of consolidation around the existing public high schools utilizing Lower Cape May Regional, Middle Township, Ocean City and Wildwood high schools to create regions geographically proximate to the high school.
The big difference in a regionalized system would be governance, where one school board would take the place of the multiplicity of boards across the existing school districts.
Another option is a countywide school district similar to what is used in states like Maryland.
The Maryland example was cited in the state task force report. The report calls for the establishment of two countywide school district pilot programs.
Cape Issues discussed the desirability of Cape May County seeking to be one of those pilots. One drawback in an environment so inured to home rule and local control is that many parents in today’s smaller districts may fear a loss of an influence with a distant and county-focused school board.
Improved Quality a Must
The Cape Issues discussion, while it never lost a focus on cost savings and tax burden reduction, also never lost sight of improvements to college and career readiness.
For some the test scores of the majority of students in the county’s public education system are too low; the numbers of students who find themselves in extensive remedial programs at the college level are too high; and that many students leave high school without practical skills arming them for success in the workplace is damaging to the student’s and county’s welfare.
One worry in the discussion is that once the county embarks on administrative realignment into regional districts, that task itself will be so consuming that it will allow for little focus on so many other areas of educational reform.
If specifics of quality improvement are not part of a consolidation effort, they risk being brushed aside for a period while administrative issues take the forefront.
One final of discussion at the Cape Issues meeting concerned how to fairly allocate the tax burden in a regionalized system. Some expressed concern of any arrangement that placed an additional tax burden on island communities which have the fewest students in a regional system.
Others expressed a fear that a regional system could see the wealthier communities with fewer students getting the advantages of a diversified and integrated regional system at a cost that is lower than the one they pay now, saddling communities with the least ability to pay with higher taxes.
The Cape Issues discussion focused on keeping the tax burden relatively the same as it is today but it did not yet explore how to do that over time when the competing models of a tax based on per-student enrollment versus one based on equalized property values.
Whatever is agreed to as a start to consolidation some mechanism for allocating new costs needs to be in place.
A December public panel discussion in Sussex County highlighted the success of a recent merger of three K-6 districts in Hunterdon County with a regional high school. Others at the same panel discussion countered with problems posed by hypothetical consolidations between districts with very different levels of debt or where the consolidation led to closing school buildings and transporting students longer distances.
Consolidation has been proposed and failed to gain needed support in the past. The Cape Issues discussion is just beginning, but its focus is less on administrative consolidation per se and more on what does this state effort potentially offer the county in terms of improving the quality of the education given to its children.