From the Echoes-Sentinel

WATCHUNG – The Watchung Hills Regional High School District Board of Education is gauging interest among its four sending districts on their willingness to participate in a feasibility study on school regionalization or consolidation.

Watchung Hills Board President Gregory Przybylski and board member Robert Morrison discussed the idea with the grades K-8 Board of Education in Watchung at a virtual meeting on Thursday, Feb. 25. The two had met virtually the previous week with Watchung Board of Education President Dorie Harvey and Vice President Jennifer Scharf.

The goal of the study would be to investigate the educational and financial benefits of consolidating some or all of the K-8 districts – Watchung, Watchung, Long Hill and Green Brook – and the high school. The state-funded study would come at no cost to the districts.

Przybylski said the results could provide various viable options or configurations, such as the three seeing districts in Watchung, Long Hill and Warren consolidating with the high school with Green Brook remaining a tuition-paying “send/receive” district.

He added the study may also include the side benefit of aiding the districts in updating their demographics, particularly considering the potential impact of incoming affordable housing developments.

He noted there would be no obligation for the districts to follow through with any of the recommendations once the study has been completed, but the information gathered could be useful nonetheless.

“If they recommend that regionalization should be done, it really will be up to each of our constituencies to determine whether, in fact, that is the best thing for us or not,” he said.

Morrison agreed the data collected and presented in the study would be beneficial, regardless of the outcome.

He said the main reasons the Watchung Hills board is interested in conducting the study now is because the state has recently eliminated the burden of each district having to pay for the studies, and removed legislative barriers that made it “nearly impossible to actually consider regionalization.”

Przybylski said the plan is to also form an ad hoc committee with representatives from each of the five school boards to further discuss the details of the study.

Watchung board member Jessica Ingrassia asked what would happen if one of the districts did not want to move forward with regionalization, should it be the ultimate recommendation of the study, while the other four did.

Morrison said, according to his understanding, the outlier would be able to negotiate a different relationship with the newly consolidated district.

“Part of the study would be to look at what might the options look like based on different configurations of approval,” he added.

She also asked if Long Hill being in a different county would have an adverse affect on regionalization, to which Morrison said it would not.

Buccarelli: ‘The Wrong Time For Our District’

Richard Buccarelli was the lone Watchung board member to provide his outright opinion on conducting the study, saying he was not in favor.

He said he did not think now was the right time to go through with the study because he believed the focus should be on returning more students to school and because there are capital projects Watchung may be pursuing via referendum for this fall.

“I never turn away from data or new information, but I also always prioritize what I should be working on. I think right now we need to work on getting the funding to keep our schools running,” he said.

Buccarelli said he wants the district to continue its positive trend, noting the administrative changes in a new superintendent, business administrator and two new principals all hired within the last two years.

He said it may deter residents from voting in favor of the capital projects if the district were to agree to participating in a regionalization study at this point in time.

“My feeling is maybe it’s a good idea, but it’s certainly the wrong time for our district,” he said.

Harvey thanked Przybylski and Morrison for leading the introductory discussion and said the two school boards would keep in contact as the process moves forward.