School Study Options Will Hit Table Thursday
Municipalities have their choices made for the ad hoc committee meeting Thursday, June 7.
After representatives from five towns and five school boards were sent back to their respective groups with homework on May 10, the time to make a choice on what a feasibility study should analyze has come.
That feasibility study, which may be commissioned by an exploratory committee made up of mayors and board of education officials from Washington Township, the Chesters and Mendhams, would cost around $50,000, according to committee.
The committee meets Thursday, June 7 at 7 p.m. at the Chester Borough Municipal Building.
The homework assignment may be in vane, however, if the five towns can’t agree on spending the necessary monies to commission the study.
Four of the towns have kicked in their $10,000 portions, while Mendham Township has yet to earmark funds from its municipal budget, claiming they would like the local school districts to share the burden.
Over the past month, the governing bodies of the regional school district’s incorporated towns have discussed what options they’d like to see addressed in the potential study.
The committee came up with six different ideas to choose from at its first meeting. They are:
- One single K-12 district, encompassing Washington Township, the Chesters and Mendhams
- Two K-12 districts; one for Washington Township, the other encompassing the Chesters and Mendhams
- One 9-12 district for the Mendhams and Chesters; one K-12 for Washington Township, leaving the K-8 districts as is in Mendhams and Chesters
- Keep the current system with a funding formula change.
- A hybrid model that would share curriculum and administration, but keep local control for boards to hire faculty and other duties allowed within their current guidelines
- Create magnet schools within the district
When the Washington Township Committee met in May, it discussed the options and unanimously agreed it would be open to exploring all the decisions.
Committeeman Jim LiaBraaten, a former Washington Township School Board member, was fine with the options, backing one in particular.
“I’m only interested in the regional K-12,” LiaBraaten said. “The time is right for consolidation.”
Chester Borough decided it would like to study 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,” Mayor Bob Davis said.
In Chester Township, the Council did not favor one option over another. In fact, Mayor Bill Cogger and the town council didn't want to remove any option off of the list.
"I think we would be making a mistake if we told the consultant what to study," Council member Matt Kass said. "Why would I pay a consultant if I am being asked to give an opinion in it?
Dan O'Donnell and Karen Powell agreed, saying that limiting a study to a few options doesn't address the problem. Cogger also saw an issue with setting too many parameters.
"I am uncomfortable telling the consultant what to study or you get conclusion bias," Cogger said. "I agree with my council. If you tell someone to show you the best way to build a five foot table, they aren't going to tell you the better answer for you might be to build a three foot table."
The Chester Township Council agreed that the issue was serious enough that they would fund a consultant to look over the options objectively before embarking on the full feasibility study.
"Why would we make a multimillion dollar decision, something that will have an effect on the taxpayers for years to come, on a 50,000 study that isn’t as complete as we would like it to be," Kass said. "I would like to see what a professional would design from the bottom up. Start over completely. Look at these five towns and decide what would be the best school system for them."
Cogger reiterated that regardless of whether the larger group agreed with Chester Township, they all wanted to move forward on reaching a solution.
"I have been listening to the angst over the schools for most of my adult life," Cogger said. "And we have never had everyone in the same room before. I would really like to get to a point where we could see something happen."
Cogger will also be sharing a letter from Senator Anthony Bucco, who is working with with Cogger on a "circuit breaker" option that would be applied legislatively.
“It looks like our number one option falls into the different funding formula options along with the creation of two K-12 districts, followed by one K-12 district for Washington township with a limited use 9-12 for the Mendhams and the Chesters and the hybrid model,” said Mayor Neil Henry.
While the hybrid model was on the list, it didn’t appear to be an option that, as Henry put it, “had legs.”
Mendham Township’s governing body, the only one to not yet commit funds to the study, agreed on two of the six options.
“Whatever we decide, it must be an option that has the best chance of being passed. We can’t frame it as all or nothing. When framed like that, many times the option is nothing,” committeeman Rob Strobel said.
The committee agreed on studying the creation of two distinct K-12 districts, and the creation of a K-12 district in Washington Township with a limited use 9-12 district for the Chesters and Mendhams. The K-8 districts in those towns would not change.
Strobel cautioned the committee that they may have left themselves little room to maneuver with those choices.
“If you go for broke, you may end up broke.” Strobel said. “I am going to take one more swing at this and then I will abide by the decision of the group. We’ve picked two options. I want to go on the record. One that the state won’t approve and one that the people won’t approve.”
The next meeting of the exploratory committee will be held at the Chester Borough municipal building at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 7. Chairperson Christine Myers will be absent, and vice chairman Jim Harmon will oversee the session.