Salem County to Consider Unifying All School Districts into One County-Wide District

By: Christian Oberly

SALEM, N.J. — Salem County has posted a grant opportunity seeking a professional consulting firm to perform a feasibility study to determine the effects and possible benefits of consolidating the county’s 15 different school districts into one county-wide district.

The request for proposals (RFP) was posted on the county’s website on Thursday, but the effort was first announced in a press release put out by the Salem County Board of Chosen Freeholders on Wednesday. The release states that the goals of a unified Salem County school district would be “to improve the quality of instruction, assure educational equity, and maximize savings of taxpayer dollars.”

The study would analyze a variety of factors, including population and demographic stats over a period of three, five, and 10 years, labor agreements, unique programs, staffing, central office configurations, budgets, economies of scale, special education, and more.

Even though the county is looking to have a study done to determine the feasibility of a county-wide school district, that does not guarantee that it will happen.

“If it’s not going to benefit the taxpayer or education, we’re not going to do it,” said Stacy Pennington, Clerk of the Board, Salem County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The study won’t just look for ways to ease the burden of local taxpayers, it will also examine potential changes to curriculum in Salem County school districts.

And if the study finds that a different configuration would be best — say, only unifying the county’s high schools — then that alternative will be considered as well. The hope is that this study will help the county remove layers of redundancy in the school system.

Funding for the study will be pursued through a Local Efficiency Achievement Program (LEAP) grant administered through the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Government Services.

Across the country, there are currently county-wide school districts in states such as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

This isn’t the first time a New Jersey county has proposed the idea. Back in 2017, Sussex County in northern New Jersey made headlines when the Newton Town Council passed a resolution in favor of creating a “Consolidated Sussex County School System.” According to the New Jersey Herald, three other towns adopted the resolution (Green Township, Sussex Borough, and Hopatcong), but when Andover Township and Franklin withheld their support, the proposal floundered.

Two bills at the state level have also been created to get the ball rolling on consolidating some of New Jersey’s 500+ school districts. S-177 in 2016 and S-3755 in 2019 were both passed, but died in committee.

This new RFP put out by the Salem County Board of Chosen Freeholders is aligned to the recommendations set forth in bill S-3755. That bill, which was itself one piece of a larger plan drafted, in part, by Senate President Steve Sweeney in 2018 known as the “Path to Progress.” That plan, created by Sweeney and a panel of 24 other committee members, was aimed at combating the pension and benefit crisis currently faced by the state.

Salem County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders is looking to utilize some of the ideas in that plan and the bills it spawned to save the county some money.

The deadline for consulting firms to submit a proposal to the freeholder board is April 7. After that, the county plans to select a firm from the applicants who “will work with a steering committee representative of the county to compose a thorough report and analysis of the educational status and opportunities in Salem County,” according to the release.