New Calls For School Consolidation in New Jersey

By David Cruz

All the talk about school consolidation is centered on the example of the Hunterdon County Schools, where voters in three municipalities — Lambertville, Stockton and West Amwell — voted last year to approve a plan to merge three elementary school districts and a high school district into one K-12 district. Two months in, Superintendent Louis Muenker says, so far so good.

“We’re very fortunate in that the three schools that have joined us are all feeder schools, so all the sixth-graders will wind up at this seventh through 12th grade facility here at Hunterdon so it just made a lot of sense to consider the regionalization,” explained Muenker.

The Hunterdon example is the basis for a call this week by Assemblywoman Donna Simon for the establishment of a task force to study school consolidation and ease the way — with incentives — for more districts to join hands. Recent studies point to New Jersey as a state where a lack of consolidation of school districts is costing over $100 million in savings. But if it’s such a good idea, why isn’t everyone doing it? Assemblyman Ralph Caputo is on the education committee with Simon.

“People have an emotional attachment to the town that they live in and they want the best for their kids and sometimes they don’t want to share that with their next door neighbors, whether it makes sense or not,” he said. “There are two questions to ask here. Is it fiscally smart or educationally smart? If it works in both cases, it’s perfect.”

The state teachers’ union says consolidation movements have to come from the bottom up. NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan says it looks like Hunterdon did it the right way.

“What we do know is that they did not make a rash decision,” she said. “We know that they spent years studying it. They had community input. They studied it further to make sure that the impact on the students would not be negative and it would be positive as they progress through the years.”

School consolidation has been the subject of debate for decades now, yet actual test cases are few. The South Orange/Maplewood merger is generally considered to be a success and schools there are considered some of the best in the state. The jury is still out on the Hunterdon experiment. For sure they’ve trimmed budgets by losing some administrators but pressures from unions will always make trimming instructional staff difficult.

“What we believe in is that the community that is part of that town should be at the table and be the drivers behind any of those changes,” added Blistan.

Muenker says districts hoping to consolidate should be patient. “It really takes a bit of determination by the community,” he cautioned. “Our success was led by their insistence that the conversation continue. This was not just a six-month process. This was multiple years of consideration.”