You may have heard about the proposal to merge the students of Atlantic Highlands, Highlands and Sea Bright into one PK-12 school district. You may be following this closely. Or maybe you aren’t following it at all. Since the issue involves both the education of our children and the taxes of every home and business owner in our town, it is hard to identify a more pressing and important issue facing our community.
Facts are important. The process is important. To get us all on the same page, here’s a brief recent history:
A few years ago, a study was commissioned to determine the feasibility of dissolving the existing Tri-District (Atlantic Highlands Elementary, Highlands Elementary and Henry Hudson Regional) and creating a unified PK-12 school district that would also include students from Sea Bright. Sea Bright’s public school children currently attend Oceanport and Shore Regional Schools. The then confidential study, undertaken by the legal firm Porzio Bromberg & Newman, P.C., was examined by the three Tri-District Boards of Education (BOE). In a letter dated January 29, 2020 signed by all three BOE presidents, the Tri-District boards informed the Mayors and Council members of the three towns that they “respectfully decline the invitation to form a new regional school district with Sea Bright” In their letter, the BOE presidents cited “potential hidden costs and liabilities” and “savings (that) are unequally distributed across the three boroughs,” among other concerns.
Around this time, new legislation was winding its way through the New Jersey Legislature to give communities incentives to pursue just these types of mergers. When it was made clear the legislation was on its way to becoming law, the idea was given new life. The Porzio firm issued a 2021 “update” to their study. The new legislation, S3488, went into legal effect on January 18, 2022. Shortly thereafter, the towns of Sea Bright and Highlands passed resolutions stating the proposal to merge Atlantic Highlands, Highlands and Sea Bright should be put to a referendum vote. Atlantic Highlands did not follow suit. At least not yet.
Why did Atlantic Highlands wait?
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The Tri-District Boards of Education – the elected officials tasked with overseeing the administration of educating our community’s children – sought and were awarded a Local Efficiency Achievement Program (LEAP) grant to examine regionalizing the Tri-District schools. This time, however, the professionals engaged by the boards – a team that included experts from the Busch Law Group and Kean University – would examine the proposal specifically through the lens of the new law. Some members of the Atlantic Highlands Council, including the three of us, expressed a desire to wait to see the results of this new study. To her credit, Mayor Loretta Gluckstein agreed.
Backed with legal analysis of the new law and updated financial and demographic information, the BOE LEAP grant study found that, instead of dissolving the existing district, the current Tri-District model could be restructured by shifting to a limited all-purpose PK-12 one that would include, either immediately or in the future, the students of Sea Bright. It found significant opportunities for savings, and recommended a cost sharing agreement between Atlantic Highlands and Highlands for the stated purpose that all three communities should share equally (or as close to equally as possible) in the benefits. All of these details were presented at a public meeting led by Tri-District Superintendent Dr. Tara Beams and the three Tri-District Boards of Education at Henry Hudson Regional School on Wednesday, May 25th. Over 100 members of the public attended.
Great news, right? We thought so. This was an opportunity to start fresh. We had current data and enthusiasm from both the local governing body and the Boards of Education to move forward. But then, somewhat inexplicably, a town hall meeting was scheduled in Atlantic Highlands for June 6th to discuss only the Porzio study. Of the two studies, the Porzio study had outdated information, a clunkier mechanism for regionalizing, offered little to no guaranteed savings for Atlantic Highlands, and – most importantly – does not have the backing of the Boards of Education. In our view, the Porzio study is moot.
It made absolutely no sense to hold a town hall meeting detailing only the findings of a moot study. It was agreed that the June 6th town hall would be postponed and an invitation would be extended to the BOE LEAP grant study group so that our residents would be provided all relevant information in one sitting. This was the right decision.
Up to now, there has been far too much finger pointing, distrust, inter-community bullying and misinformation. This is absolutely unacceptable. This is about our kids. This is about our money. Passions are to be expected, but we’ve got to get this right.
How do we do that? The first thing we need to do is take a breath. We need to remember, first and foremost, that the persons sitting up on the dais in Borough Hall and at the school board table are our neighbors. We all want to do what is best for our children, our taxpayers, and our communities at large.
It is now time for municipal leadership from all three towns – Atlantic Highlands, Highlands and Sea Bright – and the school leadership, to coalesce behind the BOE LEAP grant study and begin to truly collaborate on the best way forward. The past – even the recent past – is behind us.
Mark Magyar, the Director of the Steve Sweeney Center for Public Policy and the leading expert on school regionalization as one of the principal authors of S3488, said in a phone conversation in early May that much of the acrimony will dissipate when “all the information is in hand.”
We now have the information we need. This is why the Atlantic Highlands Council waited. We wanted our Board of Education colleagues – our neighbors – to have their say. This is what the BOE members do each day. They know the school system, the curriculum, the labor contracts. THEY are the ones that should be co-leading this process. We have the opportunity now for that to be the case.
So what comes next? The Atlantic Highlands Mayor and Council will reschedule the town hall meeting so that both studies will be presented. The June 9th Mayor and Council meeting agenda includes a resolution to petition the New Jersey Commissioner of Education for approval for a potential merger of Atlantic Highlands, Highlands and Sea Bright schools. All of these actions are moving toward a referendum vote by the voters of each community to consider regionalization.
That is where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going on school regionalization. To now, it hasn’t been the most collegial and cooperative process. Starting today, it must be. It’s too important to be otherwise.
Members, Atlantic Highlands Council