ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – “We are confident we will have the petition from all six entities to the Commissioner of Education and get her decision in time to have the regionalization question on the ballot in November,” attorney Matthew Giacobbe said at the Mayor and Council’s workshop meeting last night.
Giacobbe said all six groups working on the regionalization, the three boroughs, and three boards of education in Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, are working in unison to have the final question presented to the Commissioner, because they are all in agreement they all want this to be a “Win Win Win situation” and not a win or lose vote. The boroughs must submit any question for the November ballot to the state by August 15th.
The attorney, who is representing the Borough of Atlantic Highlands in the question of regionalization of the school boards and Sea Bright, also noted the vote and decision will make history and “towns all over the state are looking at you” to see how it will be decided.
Borough Administrator Robert Ferragina added that the borough administrators of all three towns and their financial advisors had a meeting that morning with another meeting planned though as yet unscheduled, to work out final details on the wording of the question. This is to ensure the single question submitted to the Commissioner has the support of all entities involved. The two boroughs are working on a cost sharing formula that ensures financial benefits to both, he said.
A regional district including Sea Bright will presumably reap financial and educational benefits for all three municipalities and their residents, so how the additional income coming into the current three schools will be split between the two towns is an issue on which both towns have to reach an agreement.
Giacobbe said the question which will be on the ballot will be a simple yes or no question, and will include the cost sharing benefits to both towns inserted once the question is approved by the Commissioner but before it is placed on the ballot. He reiterated that with the reports he has received from the cost sharing meetings and discussion, he anticipates having the question to the Commissioner’s office no later than the end of this week.
The question, when approved by the Commissioner, will be the same for voters in Highlands and Atlantic Highlands because of the cost sharing, and somewhat different in Sea Bright, since no funds will be going to that town. All three towns must approve their individual question in order for it to become reality.
Regardless of what the local officials send to the Commissioner, she will then review it with state attorneys and regionalization professionals and review all the supporting information which accompanies the request for approval, Giacobbe said. She can either approve the question, decline to approve it, or make suggestions as to how it should be worded to get her approval for it to be on the ballot.
School Superintendent Dr. Tara Beams, well versed on the specifics of the regionalization issue and how it impacts the educational aspects, fielded several questions on those issues from the fewer than 30 persons who attended the workshop session. Both she and Mayor Loretta Gluckstein said once the question is approved for a November vote, there would be numerous meetings by the various entities in order to provide the voting public with all the information necessary to cast ballots.
The question will be worded in a way that if voters vote yes it will mean a regionalization of the elementary schools and regional high school, together with Sea Bright, as a single entity under a single Board of Education. A no vote would not allow the two elementary schools and Henry Hudson to merge into a single district without the inclusion of Sea Bright.
With approval of a new regional district, a single board of education would oversee education, with the probable breakdown giving Highlands and Atlantic Highlands each four votes, and Sea Bright having one vote on the nine member board. That figure is determined, not by the number of students in the school, both Beams and Giacobbe said, but by the number of residents in each town based on the 2020 census. Currently, Highlands has 5 votes, and Atlantic Highlands four votes on the Henry Hudson Regional Board of Education.
Dr. Beams also detailed some of the other areas the current districts are exploring for additional financial aid from state aid stabilization grants. There is no discussion nor would there be any changes in the make-up of the current three school buildings, and with a relatively small influx of students with the addition of Sea Bright, “we won’t be fielding a football team for next season” in the district which has never had a football team but has excelled in a number of other sports including gymnastics, track and basketball.
In response to questions, both Giacobbe and Beams explained that under current law, if regionalization is approved, it is stabilized for a minimum of ten years. Should any towns want any change after that, they would have to initiate an entirely new process similar to what is happening now under the law which the state legislature approved unanimously last year. However, the school superintendent said the board would be working throughout that ten years to ensure the educational standards as well as the financial benefits remain satisfactory to all communities.
Should any of the towns have a disaster- a devastating hurricane in Sea Bright was used as an example – the towns are still obligated to pay their share of the school budget. Giacobbe pointed out that in times of disaster, the state and federal governments come in with assistance since the school district payments must be made by each town, even in cases of tax collection delinquencies.
“I am confident we will be timely in getting the question to the Commissioner in plenty of time for her to make the decision and have it on the November ballot,” Giacobbe said at the close of the nearly two hour session.