Two National Education publications rank New Jersey #1 in Public Education in the country but many believe there is still room for improvement and that belief has sparked legislation at the Statehouse.

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On Tuesday, the State Senate Education Committee unanimously approved bipartisan legislation sponsored by State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Monmouth County Senators Vin Gopal and Declan O’Scanlon, which they said in a statement, will "encourage the creation of K-12 regional and countywide school districts in an effort to improve educational quality and efficiency."

Their legislation (S-3488) would set up criteria for state-funded regionalization studies, increase flexibility on regionalization cost apportionment, bar any regionalization that would have a segregative effect, protect accrued tenure and seniority and provide significant financial incentives for districts losing state aid because of declining enrollment to regionalize by extending the schedule for their Adjustment Aid cuts from four years to eight years.

“This will be the first major overhaul of New Jersey’s school regionalization statute in over 25 years,” Senator Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland) said in a statement. “It is designed to improve the quality of education by ensuring coordination of curriculum from K to 12, provide the enriched educational experience that smaller districts cannot offer, and generate long-term savings that can be used to hold down property taxes or reinvest in expanded educational programs.”

The Senators said that Pinelands Regional in Ocean and Burlington Counties and Roosevelt in Monmouth County are among those currently using state-funded LEAP (Local Efficiency Achievement Program) grants for K-12 regionalization studies.

If the new legislation becomes law, they said it'll speed up the preliminary approval process for districts losing Adjustment Aid so that they could readjust their 2021-2022 school budgets to factor in the increased state aid they would receive for participating in regionalization studies in the first year.

“This bill will help ensure the costs of feasibility studies do not dissuade school districts from considering regionalization opportunities that could increase educational opportunities for students and reduce costs for taxpayers,” Senator O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said in a statement. “The grant program established would reimburse the cost of feasibility studies and provide incentives encouraging regionalization. Many of New Jersey’s small districts are inefficient and more costly for taxpayers, and all districts should explore the benefits available to their students and taxpayers alike.”

“Our legislation removes significant barriers to regionalization, including a statutory provision to recalculate state aid that would have made it more costly for some districts to regionalize than to remain separate,” Senator Gopal (D-Monmouth) said in a statement. “Furthermore, it extends the timeline for Adjustment Aid cuts from four years to eight years for districts that regionalize. Most importantly, it is a voluntary process that provides local districts with greater flexibility to design a regionalization phase-in that makes sense for all.”

The legislation establishes an eight-year phaseout of Adjustment Aid cuts and through 2028-2029, the Senators said that "newly established countywide districts or K-12 districts would receive the greater of the state aid to which the newly established district would be entitled, or the sum of the aid of the consolidated districts including the eight-year Adjustment Aid phaseout."

They said that only districts signing participation letters would be eligible for a reduction in their Adjustment Aid cuts.

“We believe all students would benefit from the curriculum coordination and enhanced learning opportunities that come from attending a K-12 or countywide district. But regionalization is particularly important for small districts with declining enrollments that are having an increasingly hard time providing a quality educational experience and making their budgets work," Sweeney said. “One-school districts with fewer than 500 students spend 17% more per pupil than the 60% of New Jersey districts with 1,000 or more students, and those include the large urban districts and comprehensive K-12 districts that are supposed to spend more under the state formula. Regionalization makes sense."

Senator Sweeney is referencing the S2-School Funding Formula which is currently cutting millions of dollars a year from school districts across the state including Toms River, Brick, Jackson and Freehold Regional.

You can follow Vin Ebenau on Twitter and Instagram and email news tips to vin.ebenau@townsquaremedia.com.

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