The state is back pushing school consolidation. This time they are adding financial incentives at just the moment when those incentives have the most appeal. It’s time for Cape May County school districts to take a serious look at school consolidation.
On March 25 the New Jersey Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 3488. The bill alters procedures pertaining to school district regionalization, provides grants for feasibility studies, and allows districts that are losing adjustment aid to spread those losses over a longer time period. The bill even provides for the cost of elections that put consolidation plans before the public. This bill is now in the Assembly and is likely to pass.
The legislation is coming as another year of adjustment aid cuts hits Cape May County school districts with a cumulative $6.3 million in reductions for the 2021-2022 budgets. The relentless reductions in state education aid to county districts have already lowered state funding by over $15 million since the 2018-2019 school year. Another $5 million is scheduled to disappear in the 2022-2023 budget year.
At the same time that our schools struggle to maintain vital services and a range of academic options, the county as a whole is left to locally increase support for 2 county districts, 1 regional district and 11 operating municipal school districts.
School consolidation may have legs this time. A number of areas around the state have begun regionalization studies, including Salem County which is looking at the prospect of the state’s first countywide regional system.
Many of the issues that have been roadblocks to regionalization in the past are explicitly dealt with in this new legislation. The bill addresses the sticky issues of tenure and seniority for teachers, as well as how to handle existing contracts and capital debt. There is transitional support in the event that a regionalization plan alters the arrangement of our existing regional school district. The bill even speaks to the issue of school board membership.
One concern that presents a major speed bump for regionalization planning in Cape May County is cost apportionment, who pays what in any adjusted school tax system. The current school tax arrangement is likely to change with any regionalized school system plan. Here again the bill provides a level of flexibility with up to a ten year phase-in of a new cost apportionment methodology.
Cape May County has complex and important issues that command our attention. We must find ways to deal with sustainability in the face of sea level rise and increased storm activity. The need for critical improvements to transportation infrastructure will require years of investment. Demographic trends are leaving us with an older population in part because our economy and our cost of housing make it difficult to hold young working class families.
Can we continue to afford to spread our resources across a far flung set of school systems, many of which have negligible enrollments?
Is this the best way to provide a quality education to our young people? School performance reports and state rankings don’t suggest that it is.
A well thought out, well structured and fairly supported system of schools that provide an increasingly improving educational experience for our children is key to so many plans for county development. It is critical to any effort to attract larger numbers of permanent residents. It is an important element in economic development.
Can we afford to let this moment pass? This time, the state has addressed many of the issues that undermined serious consideration of regionalization in the past. It is time to study consolidation with an open mind and a serious purpose. It is important that it be done with public awareness and input.
If our political leaders and our school boards fail to embrace this opportunity, they owe the public an explanation as to why.
From the Bible: “For even Christ did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45