In March, the pandemic forced county schools to close their facilities and abruptly pivot to all remote learning. County educators then experienced six months of changing circumstances, continuously updated state guidance, financial uncertainty, the impact of unequal access to and training for the new digital world that came to define the educational environment, and the need to plan for a fall reopening. These educators, at all levels, are among the county’s heroes in the struggle with COVID-19.
Some advised that this is not the time to add to the burdens of educational leaders and district school boards, not the time to talk about the future of education in the county. We respectfully disagree.
Mindful of the challenges facing our educational system now and in the foreseeable future, we argue that now is precisely the time to dialog about change and the direction in which we wish to take our education system in the future.
Change will be a central characteristic of the next few years, whether we actively shape it or passively react to it. This may be the best time, however difficult, to embrace a process that defines the county’s needs and responds to those needs with planning and experimentation.
We, at Cape Issues, previously expressed our concerns regarding the county’s educational structure. In those earlier communications with the community, we stressed two major goals for our educational system.
The first is to provide our young people with the knowledge and tools needed for success in life and careers, while also promoting lifetime learning and civic engagement.
The second is to align our educational system in such a way that it is responsive to in-county career opportunities. By doing this, we seek to better meet county workforce needs and to provide avenues for success that will make the county an attractive place for our youth.
We are also conscious of the fact that, as we enter a post-COVID-19 world, many imperatives are likely to compete for limited funding. How do we improve our educational system while keeping the financial needs of the system within the boundaries of what we can afford?
The most recent complete year data available through the state Department of Education, for the 2017-2018 school year, shows that Cape May County public school districts' total spending is in excess of $300 million a year, that the majority of those funds expended come from local property tax revenue, not state aid, and that enrollments continue to decline, with an over 6% decrease in the period from 2010 to 2017.
We know that state funding is reduced each year in accordance with new funding formulas. This process projects decreased funding of up to $25 million over seven years.
We, therefore, think it is time to call for a concerted planning effort, hopefully with state financial support, to address the potential consolidation of the county’s 16 operating school districts.
We feel the consolidation planning should directly address enhanced educational opportunities for the county’s youth within a structure that requires a funding level that is achievable in terms of likely state aid and reasonable local tax burdens.
We would propose these areas of key concern:
Improved college educational readiness for those who elect to pursue post-secondary education. One aim must be to increase the number of students coming out of our public school system prepared to move directly into college courses without a detour into remedial classes.
Increased access to career readiness programs that improve the opportunities for success for those students who do not seek a traditional college pathway. These programs should also show alignment with county workforce needs and should include increased apprenticeship possibilities.
Expanded educational options through the minimizing of duplication and the opening of new programs that achieve practical enrollment levels by being shared across municipal boundaries.
Are we certain that some form of consolidation offers the best option for enhanced educational opportunities within reasonable financial limits? In the absence of a planning process, no one can be certain.
Are we certain that such a planning process should be initiated now to address the county’s educational goals and an uncertain future for educational funding? This seems like a reasonable and prudent undertaking when confronted by a future of declining enrollments, increasing school tax rates, reductions in state school funding, and a need for investment in new educational opportunities.
As always, Cape Issues invites and welcomes community comments. You can express your views by writing to us, at Capeissues@cmcherald.com.
Cape Issues was established, in 2008, as a non-partisan volunteer group to advocate for the betterment of life in Cape May County, a very broad goal. We have met monthly since and been fortunate to have the support of the Cape May County Herald from the beginning.