On March 25, the members of the state Senate unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, Democratic Sen. Vin Gopal and Republican Sen. Declan O’Scanlon to encourage the voluntary creation of K-12 regional and countywide school districts in an effort to improve educational quality and efficiency.
According to a press release, the bill, S-3488, establishes criteria for state-funded regionalization studies, increases flexibility on regionalization cost apportionment, bars any regionalization that would have a segregative effect, protects accrued tenure and seniority, and provides significant 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.
“This will be the first major overhaul of New Jersey’s school regionalization statute in over 25 years,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland). “It is designed to improve the quality of education by ensuring coordination of curriculum from grades 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.”
“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,” said Gopal (D-Monmouth).
“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,” Gopal said.
According to the senators, officials in Salem County are currently conducting a countywide school district feasibility study with a state-funded Local Efficiency Achievement Program (LEAP) grant, and officials in 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 an expedited preliminary approval process to enable districts that are 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, according to the press release.
“This bill does not force schools to consolidate, but it removes some of the impediments that can prevent districts from moving forward with plans that can benefit taxpayers and students,” said O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).
“For school districts to make informed decisions, feasibility studies are essential. We don’t want the costs associated with these studies to discourage districts from exploring options that could save money in the future,” he said.
The legislation establishes an eight-year phase-out 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, according to the press release.
Through 2028-29, newly established countywide 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 phase-out.
Studies into the feasibility of establishing a countywide 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.
The legislation would permit regionalization studies to be undertaken without a formal vote by all sending districts to participate.
In those cases, the regionalization study would include an option for merger of just the officially participating districts and a second option for full regionalization that would also include sending districts not signing a participation letter that might choose to join the newly created regional district after seeing the study results.
Only districts signing participation letters would be eligible for a reduction in their Adjustment Aid cuts, according to the press release.
The bill requires the state education commissioner to certify that regionalization would not have an increased segregative effect in any affected district, and provides for accrued tenure and seniority rights to carry over into any newly created or expanded regional districts.
“We believe all students would benefit from the curriculum coordination and enhanced learning opportunities that come from attending a K-12 or countywide 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,” he said.
In a press release, the New Jersey School Boards Association said it “supports the bill because it represents a voluntary, incentive-based opportunity for school districts to explore regionalization and determine if it would be beneficial to their students and their communities.”