Mayor’s Message: Impediments to school board regionalization

In this week's Mayor's Message, Mayor Louis Manzo discusses the school district regionalization portion of the New Jersey Path to Progress Report.

In part two of my three-part series “The Future of Our Schools,” I want to focus on the report issued by the New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) titled “Impediments to School Board Regionalization.”

Let me begin by stating that I have been a supporter of the N.J. Path to Progress Report process since it was issued last summer, but let me clarify that. New Jersey is facing a crisis and the leadership in Trenton needs to take bold action to adjust our course. Creating a panel of experts and stakeholders in January of 2018, charged with vetting all options available and delivering a list of potential action steps to achieve that objective, made sense. I support that process. The resulting PPR is that list, none of which are easy or convenient. Now, I support action on the items that will improve New Jersey’s bottom line and I reject any that the data indicates otherwise. The impediments report identifies some of these obstacles and provides possible solutions for each. The report can be viewed on our township homepage at www.HarrisonTwp.US.

Under state law, whenever a regional school district is formed, tenure and seniority rights of all affected employees must be preserved. As a result, if the new district were to require fewer staff positions, the resultant workforce would be based exclusively on seniority determinations, rather than qualitative assessments. This situation would have both financial and labor relations implications and the report suggests the elimination of seniority “bumping rights” in forming a new district.

State law also requires that the salary guide of a newly formed district be that of the largest district (based on number of teachers). Since they usually have the higher average salaries, the required increases could outstrip any savings overall. The report’s solution is to allow flexibility in establishing a new salary guide.

Then we have the issue of previously accrued debt of the school districts being merged. This is where it gets very complicated. Each district’s voters would have approved any bond indebtedness and possess a tax rate that includes that. In a newly formed district, all the debt becomes the responsibility of the taxpayers from (potentially) multiple communities with a new combined tax rate. My head starts to hurt when I think about that. The report’s solution is to allow a phase-in of up to 10 years, which would make changes in tax levies less disruptive and regionalization more financially feasible.

Regionalization can also affect the state and federal aid the district receives. When school districts regionalize, changes in assessed property valuation, average resident income, and demographics may occur. These changes could result in the new district receiving less in state and/or federal aid than the total amount provided to the individual districts before regionalization. As a result, one or more of the constituent municipalities could face higher tax levies. Clearly, that’s an issue.

Next issue, we will look at Harrison’s K-6 district, specifically, and the potential impacts of regionalization.