The Chester Borough Council made clear on Monday night which options for a possible redistricting of schools it is interested in exploring, narrowing down a list of six potential options to four.
“My take on this is that I think we want to make sure that the council and all the boards have an opportunity to study what they think needs to be studied,” Borough Mayor Robert L. Davis said. “Since it appears like the boroughs and townships will be paying for this study on a one-fifth, across the board basis, I think that we should make sure that we study what we want to study.”
In the end, the council decided to move the study forward with four possible options—two separate K-12 districts, one for the Mendhams and Chesters and one for Washington Twp.; a K-12 district for Washington Twp. and separate K-8 and 9-12 districts for the Mendhams and Chesters; a “hybrid” model which would feature one superintendent and an emphasis on shared services while keeping separate Boards of Education for all five municipalities and the current model of a shared regional high school district and separate K-8 districts throughout the five municipalities.
The council seemed to see the benefits of separating from Washington Township’s schools and dissolving the West Morris Regional High School District into two distinct entities.
“I don’t think we care if Washington Township has a K-12 for themselves and we stay, pretty much, the way we are now,” Davis said.
Resident Gary Quam, a retired music teacher at West Morris Mendham High School, was on-hand to point out the importance of keeping the diversity of a regional high school district, but also believed that this could be achieved without sharing a district with West Morris Central.
“I think, because of the relationship that the Chesters and Mendhams have, they would probably be able to work together pretty harmoniously,” Quam said.
Council members were split on the hybrid model, which passed for further review by a margin of 4-3, with Mayor Davis breaking the tie. Some members of the council felt that, with one superintendent overseeing five districts, the model would spread administrative resources too thin.
“When I think about what (Superintendent) Christina Van Woert does here, I can’t imagine sharing her with five towns and having the same quality we have now,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Cooper-Napolitano. “I understand it’s potentially a huge cost savings, but at what cost?”
Others felt that such a model would not be as difficult to execute as it may seem.
“I’d like to see them study that. I would like to see how it would work,” said Councilman Jim Robshaw. “If you look at the size and complexity of our school system, I think one superintendent could do all of that.”
Through all of this, one thing seemed certain: the borough seems no longer interested in sharing a district with Washington Twp., thus eliminating other proposed study options of a shared K-12 district between all five municipalities and a “magnet” school system where district students choose which schools to attend for academic reasons throughout the five municipalities.
“I think Chester will get caught in the middle (of a shared district). We’ve been there before, we’re not there currently,” said Cooper-Napolitano. “It wasn’t in children’s best interests then, and I don’t think it will be in the future.”
Sharing a school district may also not be in the best interests of taxpayers in certain municipalities, which would cause issues similar to those currently occurring within the West Morris Regional High School District.
“The question there is what would be the funding formula,” questioned Councilman Gary Marshuetz. “If you have the creation of one K-12 school district for all five towns, what would be the funding formula?”
In the end, the borough seems to hold the belief that each municipality must do what’s best for all of its residents; particularly, the children currently in the school systems.
“I think we pick something that looks like it could have the best outcome for our children, and all the other towns should do the same and come up with a consensus,” Cooper-Napolitano said.
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