3 N.J. districts with 1 school each to study benefits of merging

There may be a merger ahead for the Monmouth County school districts of Highlands, Atlantic Highlands, and Henry Hudson Regional as a study assessing the feasibility of their consolidation nears completion.

The three school districts — among the state’s smallest with approximately 740 students between them — have been engaged in discussions of regionalization for years, and after securing a state-funded grant last summer to study how merging might impact their communities and taxpayers, the Henry Hudson Tri-District (as it’s referred to) is expected to present the results next month.

In many ways, this has been a long time coming, said Tri-District Superintendent Tara Beams, who told NJ Advance Media “the discussion of regionalization and consolidation has been tossed around, probably, for the last 60 years in this area.”

New Jersey has about 600 public school districts — more than the total number of municipalities in the state. Of those, about 253 have fewer than 1,000 students enrolled, according to data from the New Jersey School Performance Report. Supporters of New Jersey’s current system say the local control has helped keep educators focused on the needs of local students, create a better sense of community, and allow students to go to small neighborhood schools close to home. But critics say the overabundance of school districts in New Jersey — which often all have their own superintendents, administrative staff, contracts and curriculum — drives up operating budgets and contributes to some of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation.

That’s partially why the Tri-District is exploring consolidation, explained Beams.

“There are some governance and operational efficiencies that we think we would find if we operated, maybe, as one district. We don’t know that until we get our study back,” Beams said.

But at the same time, Beams said she doesn’t think the Tri-District will see “these giant cost savings, because we share so much as it is.”

Several other districts have regionalized or begun talking about mergers in recent years. In 2014, four school districts in Hunterdon County — the Stockton, West Amwell, Lambertville and South Hunterdon Regional High School districts — combined into one K-12 district after voters approved the creation of the South Hunterdon Regional School District.

Consolidation is also being discussed in Salem County, currently exploring the possibility of creating New Jersey’s first countywide school district. Both Pinelands Regional in Ocean and Burlington counties and Roosevelt in Monmouth County are also using state grants for K-12 regionalization studies.

The Henry Hudson Tri-District is unique in that it consists of three one-school districts, along with three boards of education serving the towns of Atlantic Highlands and Highlands. The three districts already have some shared services, including but not limited to: a superintendent of schools, a supervisor of special services, a director of curriculum and instruction, a technology administrator and media specialists. But they still maintain separate budgets and function as separate districts.

Not only is this not the first time regionalization has been discussed, but it’s also not necessarily the first time a study has been commissioned to examine consolidation in the Tri-District. The nearby township of Sea Bright — which sends its children to Oceanport School District and Shore Regional School District — approached the boroughs of Highlands and Atlantic Highlands in 2019 with the idea of a feasibility study to examine the impact of creating an all-purpose PreK-12 regional school district. In a 2020 letter, Sea Bright leadership said it “believed that all three communities could benefit both educationally and financially from the creation of this new school district.”

But ultimately, all 25 of the Tri-District’s school board members voted unanimously to decline the invitation to form a new regional school district with Sea Bright, citing that “while the headline savings proposed by the plan appear significant, they fail to take into account a variety of potential hidden costs and liabilities that could, over time, significantly reduce the proposed benefits.”

This time around, the Tri-District is leading the consolidation conversation, not the municipalities. Using a state grant, the Tri-District has commissioned a group of experts to fully investigate the possibility of merging its three districts to form a new, all-purpose K-12 school district, as well as analyze the feasibility of any additional configuration with other districts in the geographic area, like Sea Bright. The particular grant, a $65,000 Local Efficiency Achievement Program Grant (LEAP grant), was made available through a program in the state Department of Community Affairs, formed in December 2019, that gives districts incentives to study consolidation.

“We believe all students would benefit from the curriculum coordination and enhanced learning opportunities that comes from attending a K-12 or countywide district,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, one of the bill’s sponsors, in a statement after its passage.

Sweeney cited that one-school districts with fewer than 500 students (like those in the Henry Hudson Tri-District) spend 17% more per pupil than the 60% of New Jersey districts with 1,000 or more students. “Regionalization makes sense,” Sweeney said.

Under the new law, the state pays interested school districts for half of the cost of the study, then gives the districts the remainder of the money after the study is accepted by the department. School districts that apply for the grants are not obliged to go through with a merger, only to study it. And under the law, districts have to abandon plans to combine if the consultants find it would cost taxpayers more money or create inefficiencies.

New Jersey school districts spent an average of $17,028 per pupil in the 2019-20 school year, up 5.6%, or $897 from the year before, according to a 2021 state report. The average cost expenditure per pupil for each of the schools in the Henry Hudson Tri-District is slightly higher than that and has increased in recent years, according to state data.

There’s no telling — yet — whether these costs would come down if the Tri-District consolidated. The decision to merge is by no means pre-determined, Beams emphasized.

“At the end of the day, we just want to complete our study. Let the school districts, who are very much dedicated to doing this, complete the work that we’re trying to do and then let’s all collaborate to make a decision that’s right for our stakeholders,” Beams said.

The LEAP study reviews five key areas — legal/contract, demographics, facilities, education efficiencies and enhancements, and educational finance. The Tri-District’s study will analyze two possible models. First, the study will analyze the feasibility of the consolidation of the three existing school districts into an all-purpose, K-12, regional school district. Second, the study will investigate the possibility of adding other districts or students which would involve an enlargement of the regional district.

Once the study is completed in late-April/early May, the boards of education will make public recommendations regarding whether the districts should move forward with regionalization and will provide some preliminary details on how the new K-12 district may be shaped. At the end of the day, even if the study finds regionalization would benefit the Tri-District, “the decision is up to the voters,” Beams said.

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Jackie Roman may be reached at [email protected].