From the Echoes-Sentinel

WARREN TWP. – Twenty-five school board members and administrators representing all five Watchung Hills area school districts met virtually Monday, May 3, to hear a presentation on the benefits of participating in a school regionalization study.

The meeting comes as the Watchung Hills Regional High School District Board of Education looks to pass a resolution at its next meeting on Tuesday, May 18, to participate in the feasibility study. The analysis, which would be fully funded by the state, would examine the pros and cons of everything from increasing shared services to merging some or all of the school districts.

The high school board is looking to pass the resolution before the end of May to lock in state funding this year for the estimated $120,000 to $150,000 study.

In addition to Board of Education members from Watchung Hills Regional High School and grades K-8 districts in Warren, Long Hill, Watchung and Green Brook, most of the superintendents and business administrators from those districts attended the roughly two-hour meeting as well, Watchung Hills Regional High School District Board of Education member Robert Morrison said at a meeting of the high school board the following evening Tuesday, May 4.

Mark Magyar, director of policy and communications for the State Senate Majority Office, led the presentation. He previously presented to members of the Watchung Hills board’s regionalization ad hoc committee on April 7.

Morrison said the presentation and roughly 90-minute Q&A session served to educate K-8 school officials on the rationale behind and benefits of participating in the feasibility study. Calling the discussion “very robust and open,” Morrison noted the feasibility study is not an all-or-nothing examination.

“There’s everything from doing the status quo, which is nothing, to looking at potential areas to collaborate on shared services, all the way up to a partial regionalization and then including up to a full regionalization,” he said.

A video of the meeting has been shared with all local school board members who did not attend, as the K-8 boards consider whether or not they want to participate in the study. The study would examine all five school districts whether or not the respective school boards decide formally to participate.

“As we get indication from the boards of their desire to participate, we will then update the resolution with those participating districts, and then have this moved at the next board meeting,” Morrison said.

Once the high school board adopts the resolution, which would lock in the funding in this year’s state budget, and has corresponding resolutions from the K-8 districts, the next step would be to submit a grant application. That process would likely include forming a joint regionalization committee made up of representatives from each participating school district, Morrison said.

The joint committee would then issue a request for proposals to seek bids from consultants to conduct the study. The consultant, Morrison continued, would help with the application process and help to establish the structure of the feasibility study.

He said board members from K-8 districts shared legitimate concerns at the meeting about the study interfering with the ongoing work to return students to a normal school schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, he said, Magyar “made it clear that once we lock in the funds, we could then establish the timeline in a way that was most beneficial to the districts. He used the example of we can lock in the funds now and actually not even start until November, if that’s what everyone decides to do.”

Local school officials may however wish to act sooner, Morrison said, as there are only so many consultants in the field and 15 other regions comprising about 70 school districts looking to get in line to be studied.

“I think it is probably prudent for us to get out there as quickly as we can to make sure that we get a competent and experienced person to do the work for us, so that at the end we get out of it what we’re hoping to for all of our communities,” he said.

In the meantime, school representatives could move forward with the request for proposals to find a consultant, and begin the application process. Half of the state funding would be released once the application is approved, he said, and the other half once the study is completed.

Board member Peter Fallon reiterated Morrison’s point that the end goal of the study is not necessarily the consolidation of school districts, as the analysis could reveal potential efficiencies in sharing services in multiple areas.

The study would examine all possibilities, he said, “so that at the end it will come back to the five boards of education to make decisions about whether or not to go forward with regionalization, with consolidation, with sharing certain services, or with nothing.”