“Let’s put it to a referendum! Let’s let the taxpayers decide! This is too big an issue and has too major an impact on all our towns to let just a small handful of people make the decision we all have to pay for.”
Those are the sentiments of a determined and outspoken former Sea Bright Councilman Charles Rooney when it comes to the largest part of the tax bill in all municipalities, the high cost of education.
Another advantage of K-12 regionalization was made more apparent this week, the deadline for filing applications to run for terms on the boards of education. At Henry Hudson, a 7-12 school, and the two K-6 schools, one in each Highlands and Atlantic Highlands. With a total of 25 members on the three boards, (Highlands’ board only calls for 7 members) no one, including incumbents, filed for the Henry Hudson Board, and only two people filed for the three terms on the Atlantic Highlands Board, while an incumbent filed unopposed for the unexpired term to which she was appointed last year. Highlands was the only board where all three incumbents filed for new terms and one additional person filed as well. None has any opposition in that election.
Currently, board members and council members in Sea Bright, Highlands and Atlantic Highlands are discussing the feasibility of Sea Bright joining the two towns currently in the Henry Hudson regional district. While the three schools, Henry Hudson and the two elementary schools all come under a single superintendent, each has a principal in each school as well as a board of education, making the superintendent answerable to not one board of nine members but three separate boards and 25 members.
The state of New Jersey recently passed legislation, awaiting the signature of Governor Murphy, which would put the question of forming a K-12 board of education into the hands of the voters. Since the Governor has not yet signed the bill into law, it is too late for the November ballot, but could be in place for next year, or at a special election.
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Rooney feels the taxpayers do not yet know enough about the benefits of a larger school district, which would also include Sea Bright in the K-12 , and a single board of education which would be representative of all three municipalities, saving considerable funds for each.
“The highest part of the tax bill in most towns, including ours, is for education,” Rooney said, “so why shouldn’t the public be made more aware of ways we can all save money without taking away education for all our children?”
Rooney, a native of Sea Bright who first went on council in 2014, pointed out Middletown as an excellent example of how a single board for the three towns can be efficient and cost saving. Since it is a single township, all 17 schools educating Middletown children from kindergarten through 12th grade, come under a single Board of Education and all follow the same curriculum and schedules. Currently, Sea Bright is part of the Shore Regional High school district and the Oceanport elementary school district.
Should Sea Bright join the Hudson district for K-12 education, the Sea Bright students would be bussed to Atlantic Highlands Elementary on First Ave since that school better meets the education level of the Oceanport school. All Sea Bright high school students would then go on to Henry Hudson Regional with the students from the other two communities.
“Sea Bright does not belong with Monmouth Beach, Oceanport or West Long Branch, Sea Bright belongs with Highlands and Atlantic Highlands,” Rooney added. “It makes sense in so many ways.”
The councilman was speaking from his own experience growing up in Sea Bright. He spent his summers playing at Highlands’ Kavookjian field with Highlands and Atlantic Highlands kids, he hung out at the Parrot and other Highlands restaurants. “I love Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, I love the people, we’re the same kind of people We speak the same language, we have the same issues.” He remembers always being the outsider in Oceanport because he was “one of those kids from Sea Bright.” His parents chose to have him finish his 8th grade at Holy Cross School in Rumson before going on to Shore Regional for High School.
“The Highlands kids had the same kinds of problems and were looked at as outsiders when they had to go to Middletown or Atlantic Highlands before Henry Hudson was built,” Rooney said.
The taxpayers, not school boards or mayors and councils should make a decision of this magnitude, the councilman continued. But they should also be made aware of all parts of it, how much the towns can save, how beneficial it will be for the students. Feasibility studies and discussions for the past five years have shown this could work well, he continued. “A K-12 district approved by the voters ahead of what is going to be a state mandate for all districts to enlarge their coverage area and cut their administrative costs enables the taxpayers in the town to have the say of who is going to be in the district,” Rooney continued. “It enables the three towns to control their destiny.”
“Hudson isn’t big enough to stand on its own once the state starts crafting and mandating larger districts,” Rooney said, “the state could well put the Middletown high school students from Navesink and Monmouth Hills at Henry Hudson and that and the elementary schools could then become one more district in Middletown. Having Sea Bright leave the Oceanport and Shore Regional districts and join Highlands and Atlantic Highlands in the Henry Hudson school district would help us all keep the identity and familiarity of our communities in a far better way,” he said.
Rooney is advocating that each of the towns hold public forums, enabling the public to become fully informed on all aspects of consolidation, ask all the questions they want from the various educators, state leaders, Department of Education and local leaders, and become involved in making the decision.
“Right now, the people themselves don’t know enough about any of this,” he said, “and that why we need the town hall meetings to educate the residents. Then when they vote, it will be based on facts.”
While Sea Bright is already in accord with leaving Shore Regional and Oceanport schools and joining the two communities to the north, “It’s safe to say that approximately 70 percent of the taxpayers in these two towns do not have any children in school. I don’t think the people of Highlands and Atlantic Highlands know about the $1.5 million that would be poured into their educational system and how beneficial that will be to every taxpayer and the beneficial impact he would have on all our students.”
With four persons running for the two Council seats in Atlantic Highlands, and six persons running for the two council seats in Highlands this November, none has yet expressed an opinion on our schools forming a K-12, and the positive impact it would have on the taxpayers.