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1-10-10 'Educators say consolidating school districts doesn't add up'
Courier-Post - "In theory, there is much to commend in state legislation aimed at saving taxpayers' money while improving education. But in reality, regionalizing and consolidating many of the approximately 600 school districts in the state may not be worthwhile from either a fiscal or an educational standpoint, school officials say..."

January 10, 2010

Educators say consolidating school districts doesn't add up

Courier-Post Staff

In theory, there is much to commend in state legislation aimed at saving taxpayers' money while improving education.

But in reality, regionalizing and consolidating many of the approximately 600 school districts in the state may not be worthwhile from either a fiscal or an educational standpoint, school officials say.

There is a lot to digest in the 79-page CORE Act of 2007, based on an initiative proposed by outgoing Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden.

"Home rule sentiment is not what stops initiatives like this -- it's the financial impact," New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said. "We are talking about a lot of readjustment having to do with taking on debt, taking on operations of schools, contracts with teachers. It's not a simple process."

The CORE Act created the position of a strong executive county superintendent who would, among other things, help guide existing non-K-12 districts -- and K-12s with fewer than 5,000 students -- toward creating consolidation plans. The act imposed a deadline of three years from its passage -- March 15, 2010 -- for the state's 21 executive county superintendents to submit overall plans to the state commissioner of education.

Because any plans would have to be approved by voters, referendums would be scheduled at the county superintendent's discretion. Although not specified, September 2010 was considered the target date.

But along the way, several things happened.

Districts realized, through feasibility studies, that the hoped-for financial savings were not likely to materialize through outright regionalization.

Given the economic climate, they were already of a mind-set to enact shared-service agreements, and were continuing to do so in order to balance their budgets and lessen the tax impact on voters.

With Gov. Jon S. Corzine's re-election bid defeat in November, the promise of a new administration and most likely a new commissioner of education has made district regionalization a bigger question mark than ever.

"(Governor-elect) Chris Christie has indicated he considers shared services more of a priority, and we agree," Belluscio said.

Since 1982, only four locally initiated regionalization proposals have succeeded in New Jersey, with South Jersey represented only by the merger of Bordentown Regional High School with the Bordentown City and Township elementary districts.

Camden County

In Voorhees, Eastern Regional High School Superintendent Harold Melleby doesn't expect district consolidation to happen.

"You'd have a lot of kicking and screaming," he said.

Eastern Regional joined with its three sending districts -- Berlin Borough and Gibbsboro, which already share one superintendent, and Voorhees -- to commission a study on the fiscal feasibility of becoming one district.

The study is being conducted at a cost of less than $5,000 by Rowan University Professor John Knorr, a former business administrator in Burlington County.

"Preliminary data show no savings. If anything, costs will go up. If we consolidate, Gibbsboro would take on debt service approved by other municipalities," Melleby said. "You could argue that eliminating superintendents would cut positions, but with the larger schools that might result, you'd need to hire assistant superintendents. Gibbsboro might have room in its classes to add more students, but then you'd have the added transportation cost. It doesn't add up," he said.

A major obstacle is teachers' salaries, which make up the bulk of the budget in large districts.

"The salary guide used is that of the largest school district in the merge -- most likely a high school district with a higher salary scale. It's absolutely certain you would see teacher salaries increase," Belluscio said.

Camden County Executive Superintendent Peggy Nicolosi hopes her projected district reconfiguration may stick. She asked superintendents in each grouping to meet and give her a final recommendation by December or January on who each wanted to consolidate with.

"They only have to give me something rudimentary," Nicolosi said. She envisioned having time to work out any kinks before presenting her report to the DOE. But, she added, she had no idea what might happen next should any referendums be held and defeated.

Besides the Eastern Regional family of districts, it seems certain that Black Horse Pike Regional would merge with its sending districts of Bellmawr, Gloucester Township and Runnemede, and Sterling High School would merge with its sending districts of Laurel Springs, Magnolia, Somerdale and Stratford plus Hi-Nella, which has no school. Hi-Nella students now attend Oaklyn, but the district has petitioned the DOE to sever that relationship and attend Stratford schools instead.

Like the Eastern group, the BHP and Sterling groups have commissioned feasibility studies.

Nicolosi hopes attrition will make for natural pairings. For example, Lawnside has an interim superintendent, while Barrington, Bellmawr and Berlin Township have interim business administrators.

"We're not looking at closing neighborhood schools or redistricting students to other schools. The only thing we're looking at differently is administrative," she said. "But we must cut costs, not incur costs, and get equal if not better educational programs. It won't be strictly dollar for dollar savings and reductions."

In Collingswood, which is too small to remain a stand-alone K-12 district under the legislation, Superintendent Scott Oswald has been meeting with his counterparts in Oaklyn and Woodlynne, which send their high school students to his district. Oaklyn's superintendent, Tommie Stringer, retired in December; Woodlynne already has an interim superintendent, Walter Rudder.

"Consolidation is off the table. It's very messy and we'd need to go into a deep study. That would take a while and no one has the money to pay for it," Oswald said.

Instead, the districts are considering shared services and are looking at several options, including sharing one superintendent. But that wouldn't save money, Oswald said, because it would require two new assistant superintendents. There is also the question of a perceived hierarchy.

"No one is comfortable with having Collingswood take over right away," Oswald said. The districts could not meet Nicolosi's Dec. 1 deadline to submit a plan to her.

In addition, Woodlynne may want to join with Pennsauken, which is large enough to stand alone. Oaklyn is also considering a merge with K-12 Audubon, which already accepts students from Mount Ephraim and the nonoperating Audubon Park district.

The scenario could play out like a game of musical chairs. Merchantville, which now sends students to Pennsauken for high school, is interested in severing that tie in favor of Haddon Township, another stand-alone district. Brooklawn, which now sends its high school students to Gloucester City, is eyeing Audubon.

Burlington County

In Burlington County, Executive County Superintendent Lester Richens sent a list of proposed feasibility studies to the DOE earlier this year. It included a couple of scenarios for the Lenape Regional High School District, which could become one comprehensive K-12 district with its eight sending districts, or four new K-12 districts -- one each for Mount Laurel, Evesham, Medford/Medford Lakes and Southampton/Shamong/Tabernacle/Woodland.

While Moorestown and three other districts fit the stand-alone model in Burlington County, Maple Shade, with about 2,000 students, does not.

All those studies now appear to be on hold, and a Burlington County task force that had been established to look at consolidation was recently canceled, Eastampton Superintendent Robert Krastek said.

Krastek said the study that would have looked at joining Rancocas Valley Regional High School District with its sending districts was never begun. He believes it would have shown a negative impact for his district, which consolidated its 700 students into one new K-8 school three years ago rather than repair two aging buildings. As a result, bus routes were cut from 11 to six, and heating costs went down.

"Right now, we are at the lower end of the county in terms of per-pupil spending, and 80 percent of our students can walk to school. Our concern is that students may be moved around," Krastek said.

Eastampton has already eliminated administrators. Krastek also serves as principal of grades six through eight. The elementary school principal directs the child study team. An assistant principal is also the director of instruction, technology and curriculum.

Krastek likes that he gets to walk the halls and pull bus and cafeteria duty.

"We're very hands-on. It helps make decisions at the board level that impact education. Also, having students in a K-8 building has given us an exciting, unique culture where older students work with younger ones," he said.

"Regionalization would more than likely result in an increase in taxes, more so than we've had in the past. I don't know how the township could bear it," Krastek said.

Gloucester County

In Gloucester County, Executive County Superintendent Mark Stanwood said regionalization is fraught with challenges.

"We have been much more aggressive on the other half of consolidation, which is shared services," he said.

Stanwood called the Gateway Group -- Gateway Regional High School District in Woodbury Heights and its four constituent districts -- the poster child for shared services. It has been sharing several administrative services for years. In September, the National Park, Westville and Woodbury Heights districts began buying superintendent services from Gateway after their superintendents left.

Two years ago, Stanwood asked Gloucester County's four regional school groups -- Delsea, Clearview, Gateway, Kingsway and their constituents -- to consider ways to share services, including business, transportation, child study/special education, and supervision of instruction.

"Clearview and Mantua now share a food services director, which saved $25,000. South Harrison and Kingsway entered into a facility management agreement," he said.

"It's challenging to have to answer to more than one board of education, with different policies. But if we can't accomplish what we want with regionalization, let's go with shared services," Stanwood said.

It's a sentiment shared by many in the region.

"We're not resisting sharing services. That's where the savings will be," said Melleby, Eastern's superintendent.

"Our group of districts wants to remain interactive. We want to remain a family. It's a wonderful partnership," Melleby said.

Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or barothschild@camden.gannett.com


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