Two Monmouth County state senators and the state Senate president from southern New Jersey have announced they are introducing legislation to encourage the creation of K-12 regional and county-wide school districts in an effort to improve educational quality and efficiency.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland), Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) made the bipartisan announcement in a Feb. 22 press release.
The legislation establishes criteria for state-funded regionalization studies, increases flexibility on regionalization cost apportionment, bars any regionalization that would have a segregative effect, and provides financial incentives for districts losing state aid because of declining enrollment to regionalize by extending the schedule for their Adjustment Aid cuts from four years to eight years, according to the press release.
The three state legislators weighed in on the proposal. All were quoted in the press release.
“This will be the first major overhaul of New Jersey’s school regionalization statute in over 25 years,” Sweeney said. “It is designed to improve the quality of education by ensuring coordination of curriculum from K to 12, provide the enriched educational experience smaller districts cannot offer, and generate long-term savings that can be used to hold down property taxes or reinvest in expanded educational programs.”
According to the press release, Salem County officials in southern New Jersey are exploring the possibility of creating New Jersey’s first county-wide school district with a state-funded Local Efficiency Achievement Program (LEAP) grant, and both Pinelands Regional in Ocean and Burlington counties and Roosevelt in Monmouth County are using LEAP grants for K-12 regionalization studies.
The new legislation provides for an expedited preliminary approval process to enable districts losing Adjustment Aid to readjust their 2021-22 school budget to factor in the increased state aid they would receive for participating in regionalization studies in the first year.
“Our legislation removes significant barriers to regionalization, including a statutory provision to recalculate state aid that would have made it more costly for some districts to regionalize than to remain separate,” Gopal said.
“Furthermore, it extends the timeline for Adjustment Aid cuts from four years to eight years for districts that regionalize. Most importantly, it is a voluntary process that provides local districts with greater flexibility to design a regionalization phase-in that makes sense for all,” he said.
“There is a growing local interest across New Jersey in consolidating small school districts to lower costs and property taxes while improving the quality of education for our children,” O’Scanlon said.
“Unfortunately, many districts that are interested in pursuing regionalization with their neighbors are finding the process extremely difficult under current state law. Our new bipartisan legislation simplifies the process and offers significant new financial incentives for those who study and implement school district regionalization,” he said.
According to the press release, the legislation, which would require passage in the state Assembly and Senate and the signature of the governor, establishes an eight-year phaseout of Adjustment Aid cuts – stretched out from the current four years – for districts participating in a LEAP regionalization study that continues only if they move forward and implement a regionalization plan.
Through 2028-29, newly established county-wide districts or K-12 districts would receive the greater of the state aid to which the newly established district would be entitled, or the sum of the aid of the consolidated districts including the eight-year Adjustment Aid phaseout.
Studies into the feasibility of establishing a county-wide school district or a K-12 regional district incorporating any existing regional high school and its current sending districts would automatically receive preliminary approval for participation, according to the press release.
“We believe all students would benefit from the curriculum coordination and enhanced learning opportunities that come from attending a K-12 district or a county-wide district,” Sweeney said.
“But regionalization is particularly important for small districts with declining enrollments that are having an increasingly hard time providing a quality educational experience and making their budgets work.
“One-school districts with fewer than 500 students spend 17% more per pupil than the 60% of New Jersey districts with 1,000 or more students, and those include the large urban districts and comprehensive K-12 districts that are supposed to spend more under the state formula. Regionalization makes sense,” Sweeney said.