Gov. Murphy Signs Bill Incentivizing School District Regionalization

New Jersey has about 600 public school districts, which exceeds the total number of municipalities in the state. Changes could be coming under a school district regionalization bill Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed into law. 

The new law, Senate Bill No. 3488, modifies certain procedures pertaining to school district regionalization, establishes a grant program to reimburse districts for the costs associated with conducting regionalization feasibility studies, and provides financial incentives for regionalization. According to sponsors, the new law could result in significant tax savings for taxpayers and improve the educational opportunities available for students in certain districts.

“Although we won’t know the exact savings until the studies are complete, we can see from other states that regional school districts do offer a savings to taxpayers,” said Assemblyman Ron Dancer, one of the sponsors of the bill. “There are also educational benefits, such as curriculum coordination and more learning opportunities than may be currently possible in small districts with declining enrollment.”

Key Provisions of School District Regionalization Law

Below are several key provisions of the school regionalization bill:

  • Feasibility Study Grants: The law creates a grant program within the Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs, which will provide reimbursement of eligible costs associated with conducting feasibility studies that support the creation of meaningful and implementable plans to form or expand regional school districts or withdraw from districts in furtherance of such purposes. The state will pay interested school districts for half of the cost of the study, then provide the remainder of the money after the study is accepted by the Department of Education (DOE). School districts that apply for and receive grants are not obligated to follow through with regionalization, only complete the feasibility study.
  • Grant Eligibility: In order to be eligible for a grant, boards of education must meet certain criteria, including that the proposed regionalization does not increase or exacerbate the segregation of students enrolled in the school districts seeking to consolidate or, as applicable, in the school districts from which a school district is seeking to withdraw by racial, socio-economic, disability, or English Language Learner status. School districts need not be immediately contiguous as long as the consolidation and any geographic separation is not so large as to contradict the potential for improved efficiency and cost savings; possesses the potential for improved efficiency and cost savings; possesses the potential to advance an enhanced learning environment for participating districts; coordinates curriculum across schools and grades throughout the proposed limited purpose or all-purpose regional school district; and reflects a documented commitment from the participating districts to make good faith efforts to implement the recommendations of the feasibility study that promote efficiency and quality of education.
  • Existing Students: A student that resides in the withdrawing district at the time of the bills enactment can remain in the school in which the student is enrolled at the time of withdrawal on a tuition basis.
  • Terms of Employment: Whenever a regional district is formed following the approval of a grant application, the salary guide and terms and conditions of employment, whether established through a collective negotiations agreement or past practice, of the constituent school district with the largest number of teaching staff members will apply in full after three years following the formation of the regional district or until a successor agreement is negotiated with the majority representative of the new school district, whichever occurs first.
  • Tenure/Seniority: Whenever a limited purpose or all-purpose regional district is formed or enlarged, the tenure and seniority rights of all employees from the affected, constituent, replaced, displaced, or dissolved districts, except for employees who are superintendents without prior underlying tenure and seniority rights, will be recognized and preserved by the newly formed or expanded limited purpose or all-purpose regional district. Additionally, all periods of employment in any of the school districts would count toward acquisition of tenure and seniority in the newly formed or enlarged limited purpose or all-purpose regional district. All statutory and contractual rights to accumulated sick leave, leave of absence, and pension of an employee that have been acquired through employment in any of the districts would also be recognized by the newly formed or enlarged limited purpose or all-purpose regional district. Under the law, whenever a limited purpose or all-purpose regional district is formed or enlarged, any employee not covered by statutory seniority rights will be placed on a seniority list in accordance with the employee’s years of employment in any of the constituent districts for the purposes of employment. 
  • Reimbursement of Election Costs: The DOE will reimburse participating districts for any costs incurred to hold an election to establish or enlarge a limited purpose or all-purpose regional district provided that the decision to establish or enlarge a limited purpose or all-purpose regional district stems from the completion of a feasibility study conducted in connection with the law’s grant program.
  • State Aid: A school district that is a regional school district created following the approval of a grant application will, from the first full school year following the creation of the regional school district through the 2028-2029 school year, receive State school aid in an amount that is the greater of: the amount of State school aid that the newly created regional school district would receive as a regional school district; or the sum of the amount of State school aid received by each school district constituting the newly created regional school district prior to the creation of the regional school district.  The bill also extends the timeline by which a school district receiving approval or preliminary approval under the grant program would experience State aid reductions pursuant to P.L.2018, c.67 (commonly referred to as S-2) by a period of four additional years beyond what is provided for under the current State aid reduction timeline.

Key Takeaway

Senate Bill No. 3488 aims to make it easier and more cost-effective for school districts to consider regionalization. However, it is a long and complicated bill, and it is important that school districts fully understand its provisions before embarking on the process.

If you have legal concerns related to the new law and how it may impact your school district, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Education Law Group at 201-896-4100.

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