Trenton – The Senate Budget Committee today unanimously approved bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senators Vin Gopal and Declan O’Scanlon to encourage the creation of K-12 regional and countywide school districts in an effort to improve educational quality and efficiency.
The bipartisan bill, S-3488, has the support of the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey School Boards Association and other statewide educational groups, and is expected to be voted upon by the full Senate on Thursday.
The comprehensive legislation 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 Senator Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “It is designed to improve the quality of education by ensuring coordination of curriculum from K to 12, provide the enriched educational experience that smaller districts cannot offer, and generate long-term savings that can be used to hold down property taxes or reinvest in expanded educational programs.”
The legislation provides an expedited pre-approval process to enable Adjustment Aid districts to recalculate their state aid to factor in the increased aid they would receive for participating in countywide or K-12 regionalization studies during the 2021-22 school year. Districts must vote on regionalization within two years to stretch out their Adjustment Aid cuts over eight years, rather than four.
“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 Senator 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.”
Salem County is currently exploring the possibility of creating New Jersey’s first countywide 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.
“This bill doesn’t force schools to consolidate, but it removes some of the impediments that can prevent districts from moving forward with plans that can benefit both taxpayers and students,” said Senator 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.”
The legislation would permit regionalization studies to be undertaken without a formal vote by all sending districts to participate. In these 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.
The bill requires the state Education Commissioner to certify that regionalization would not have an increased segregative effect in any affected district, and also 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 comes from attending a K-12 or countywide district,” said Senator Sweeney. “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.