By Peggy McGlone/The Star-Ledger
In a state where home rule is deeply valued and fiercely protected, four school districts in Hunterdon County have done the seemingly impossible. They have willingly ceded control of their three elementary schools to create a regional K-12 school district.
On Tuesday, the first day of the new fiscal year, the West Amwell, Stockton and Lambertville elementary school districts and South Hunterdon High School district will dissolve in order to give birth to the South Hunterdon Regional School District.
Five years in the making, the regional district may serve as a model for future efforts, experts say.
But at the same time they acknowledge the difficulties.
"This is incredibly hard work. The amount of pride in local government, and in local identity in New Jersey is about as solid as Fort Knox," New Jersey School Boards Association executive director Lawrence Feinsod said.
"It will be very difficult to replicate, but certainly not impossible."
Hunterdon’s Executive County Superintendent Gerald Vernotica was part of the early discussions. A task force was formed to study the issue, and its work led to the referendum put before voters last September. Residents overwhelmingly approved the plan, which involves the dissolution of the South Hunterdon Regional High School district as well as the elementary school districts in West Amwell, Stockton and Lambertville.
"It’s a true accomplishment, and the first in 25 years," Vernotica said. "We’re blessed to get this done."
In the process, 34 board members lost their seats, though several were appointed to the new nine-member regional board. One of those is Kenneth Good, pastor of Stockton Presbyterian Church, who was on the Stockton Board of Education.
"I had my concerns and questions along the way, but I have been nothing but impressed with the new board," Good said.
The merger had several factors in its favor. Families from the three towns already come together when their children enter seventh grade, which is taught at the regional high school. Families know each other, compete together in local sports leagues, Good said.
"If you have these good relationships, you can get it done," Good said.
Another factor is the similarity between the towns. While Lambertville is larger, and is technically a city, it still has a small-town feel. West Amwell and Lambertville schools are similar in size, while Stockton’s enrollment is less than 100, making it the smallest elementary school in the state.
That balance means there are no winners and losers.
"The partners all feel equal," Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, said. "There are a number of places where they realize one partner becomes more powerful, more influential."
Under the new structure, each local elementary school will continue to operate as it does now and retain the same leadership.
"We’re still going to be a really small district, with 940-950 students, and the smallest, Stockton, retains its historic flavor as the smallest (elementary school) in the state," said Louis Muenker, who is the first superintendent of the new district. "In the first year, 2014-15, everything will remain the same. The same school colors, same names, and that lends a level of comfort to people."
All the schools in the district will have the same curricula and use the same textbooks, creating a common foundation for the seventh grade.
"It won’t be Lambertville kids already learned this, or West Amwell kids already had that," said Aaron Sneddon of West Amwell, owner of Sneddon’s Luncheonette in Lambertville. "It will be unified."
The new district should deliver cost savings, since it will consolidate central office staff and even vendor contracts. But next year’s budget is projected to be about $15 million, on par with the previous four districts’ spending plans.
"My best guess is there’s not a huge dollar savings associated, but there will be some," Muenker said. "But I think part of the major push is the educational model seems to make sense."
Focusing the message on education value was critical to the plan’s success, Feinsod said.
"They focused on education and its impact on children, instead of money and its impact on taxpayers," he said. "They kept this about the kids."
It was also community-driven. Dan Seiter, who will be the new board’s president, served as president of the South Hunterdon Regional High School Board of Education and was the chairman of the task force. He was one of 34 board members on four different boards who supported an effort that would mean many lose their positions.
"I was totally fine with that," Seiter said. Each of the four boards that will be dissolved passed unanimous resolutions in support of regionalization, he said. "We all knew that it wasn’t about our self-interest, but the greater value for the kids and the educational process."
Rutgers’ Pfeiffer said the importance of the movement’s roots can’t be overlooked.
"The takeaway is this was locally initiated. It didn’t come from freeholders, it didn’t come from the Department of Education telling them they had to do this," he said.
Many other boards and towns may be watching the Hunterdon effort, but it is too soon to say if it will be a model, Pfeiffer added.
"It’s important to realize that this isn’t a universal system; it doesn’t mean it will work identically in other places," he said. "But it does show that hey, it’s possible that we can find ways to do this stuff."
Pfeiffer said he thinks others have been watching as the new regional district has taken shape, and they will watch its first year.
"It will create some interest, and you’ll get discussions, and discussion spreads a lot of seeds," he said. "Whether they will get watered and take root if people nourish them? That’s a whole other story."
Meanwhile, the residents seem to welcome the start of the experiment that was five years in the making.
"I think it’s a good idea, and it saves us a ton of money," said Sneddon, who graduated from West Amwell Elementary and South Hunterdon Regional High School, where his two children study.
"We’re not losing anything. It’s still a small town, and there’s still small-town pride."