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Wake Me Up When It’s Done: West Morris Regional and Mendham Township School Districts Continue to Contemplate Shake-Up

Posted by: Roxy - Print This Post Print This Post

I know the discussions to shake up various school districts, including West Morris Regional and Mendham Township, have been going on for quite some time, but I’ve been unable to bring myself to either attend the meetings or write about the various combinations under consideration.  The headline in this week’s Observer-Tribune reads:  “District Shakeup Gains Steam” but nothing in the article suggests that the concept has truly gained momentum since Rex and I first heard about it four or five years ago.

I’ll do the best I can to summarize the current state of play, and would appreciate comments from anyone who has attended the meetings or is more involved in the potential re-districting process.

On Thursday, December 11th, during a meeting held at Mendham Township Elementary School, Kathleen C. Serafino, who holds the title Morris County Superintendent of Schools, told a group of about 75 people that a recommendation on the best way to configure the West Morris Regional High School District will be made public by March 15, 2009.  A special task force will consider various realignment possibilities around Morris County, New Jersey.  The West Morris Regional School District currently consists of only two high schools.  Chester, Mendham Borough and Mendham Township students attend West Morris Mendham High School.  Residents of Washington Township attend West Morris Central High School.  For years, Mendham residents and officials have called for a change in the district because the Mendhams and Chesters pay a disproportionate amount of the district costs, while more students come from Washington Township, whose residents contribute fewer tax dollars.  Taxes to support the two high schools are raised on a property valuation method rather than a per pupil method.  From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need, as Karl Marx might say.

Let me be the first to admit that I am not an educator and have no expertise in this area.  However, I believe that my two elementary school age daughters would be best served by a K-12 district comprised of West Morris Mendham High School, Mendham Township Elementary and Middle Schools, Mendham Borough Elementary and Middle Schools, and Chester Elementary and Middle Schools. One huge benefit would seem to be the application of a consistent set of best practices academic standards by a single leadership group (Superintendent of Schools with school principal direct reports) across all grades as children progress from elementary school to middle school to the high school.I’m apparently in good company.  The Mendham Township school board invited former Rutgers University educator C. Willaim Gardner to present at the meeting.  Noting that previous studies have shown 5,000 students to be the optimum size for a district, Gardner concluded that the perfect balance would be obtained by having two K-12 districts, one for the Mendhams and Chester and one for Washington Township.  So configured, each district would consist of approximately 4,400 students attending one high school and five or six other schools.

However, the roadblock to progress is so significant that I cannot afford the time and effort to get involved.  Any change to the existing district requires the voter approval of all of the communities involved, and it is not in Washington Township’s best interest to let our towns secede from the current district, leaving them to pay their own way.  At the December 11th meeting, Kathleen Serafino reiterated that a change to the district or the relative tax contributions is possible, but that all involved communities would have to agree to refigure the formula.

The state of New Jersey has a target of at least 1,000 students in each separate district.  Mendham Township, for example, has fewer than 1,000 students in its two schools.  Gerald Vernotica, state assistant commissioner for field services, said county superintendents have the authorization to put together a plan to eliminate K-8 districts and create K-12 districts.  He said the state will review a request to dissolve the district but it may not be looked on favorably.  “I had one on my desk three weeks ago from Sussex County.  We rejected the dissolution.“  Vernotica said the path to reconfiguring the districts could take as long as five years, culminating in a town-by-town vote that would need the support of all five municipalities.  That’s where I lose interest…. I’d love to open up a public forum here at Roxy’s Best Of… Mendham, NJ to hear your thoughts.

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