Give N.J. county’s faculty merger research an opportunity | Editorial

This time, hopefully, they’ll see this thing through.

With the announcement of a consulting contract award, the Salem County freeholder board is going ahead with a feasibility study about merging all 14 public school districts in the county into one.

So-called regionalization of New Jersey’s too-numerous school districts has been studied almost to death. Hoping historically to hasten the death of the idea have been teachers’ unions, better-off sectors on the socio-economic scale who don’t want their top performing schools “diluted,” potential property tax discrepancies, and our state’s fierce home-rule mentality that treats the loss of a single-town high school name or mascot as if a close relative has passed away.

Given all that, it’s a wonder that Salem’s state-grant funded initiative even made it this far. With the freeholder board’s recent choice of a Morristown law firm, Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, P.C., for a $143,000 contract for the study, it’s full-speed ahead — for now.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has preached school regionalization gospel for a long time. That Sweeney’s legislative district includes Salem County is probably a large factor in its selection for this demonstration project. But Sweeney knows better than anyone that pilot legislation and feasibility studies are just baby steps toward a sensible concept.

Remember when all of the county superintendents in New Jersey’s 21 counties were supposed to recommend districts that could combine? That effort imploded with a whimper.

In 2007, Gloucester County Education Association members filled an auditorium to oppose an earlier attempt by Sweeney to pick one county — Gloucester was one of 10 in the running — for a pilot countywide program. Local lawmakers got the powerful teachers union message and backed off for a while.

Even smaller, ready-made unification efforts involving regional high school districts have stumbled in Gloucester County. Around 2012, an attempt to merge the Delsea Regional district with one or both of its elementary sending districts, Franklin and Elk townships, stumbled. Of course, Franklin had proposed that it — not Delsea — be the surviving district, a position that did not sit well with Delsea and Elk representatives.

Elsewhere in Gloucester County, the idea of making Logan Township schools a full member of the Kingsway Regional High School District has long languished over tax equity issues, even though most Logan high-schoolers attend Kingsway on a tuition basis. Under one plan floated around 2011, Kingsway would have become a full K-12 district after consolidation with Logan and its other primary-school sending districts, Woolwich-Swedesboro, South Harrison and East Greenwich.

Salem County lacks the tortured school merger history of its neighbor to the north, so it’s a good place to reboot a path toward efficiency, optimal use of building space and an end to duplicated administrators’ posts. Its relatively small number of local districts should make a combination drive move more smoothly than in counties with dozens of individual districts.

Salem County Freeholder Director Benjamin H. Laury expects to receive the consultants’ review by the end of February. Without knowing exactly what it will recommend, we suggest an open mind on the part of all stakeholders.

If consolidation is shot down, it shouldn’t be prematurely because unions are afraid they’ll lose power by bargaining with a larger entity, because sentimental alumni can’t bear the thought of a football team name change, or due to preconceived bias by parents unwilling to listen to how student-body diversity can be a positive influence.

Don’t introduce poison pills before a study is finished. There will be an appropriate time to hash out the issues cited above. It’s right before local residents get to decide on dissolution of their local districts. No consolidation can take place without voter approval, so the citizens always have the upper hand.

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