Pinelands Regional School District Awaits State Help for Schools Consolidation Study

NJ Budgets $10 Million for Applications
By Rick Mellerup | Oct 23, 2019

Little Egg Harbor — The consolidation of the Little Egg Harbor School District, and perhaps the Bass River, Tuckerton and Eagleswood districts, with the Pinelands Regional School District seems almost inevitable to at least some of the members of the Pinelands Regional Board of Education. Merging the state’s vast number of elementary districts with high school districts to create K-12 districts is one of the major legislative aims of New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney. And Pinelands already shares numerous services with the sending districts, especially Little Egg Harbor, which shares a superintendent, business administrator, director of special education and more.

Also, a couple of months ago Melissa McCooley, the aforementioned shared superintendent of schools for Pinelands and LEH, had announced at a meeting of the Little Egg Harbor Board of Education that she was seeking a cost quote for a study concerning the merger of her two districts.

Well, it may be inevitable, but a consolidation isn’t going to happen overnight. And it won’t happen without a ton of discussion along the way.

At the Oct. 16 meeting of the Pinelands school board, Nick Brown – the shared business administrator for Pinelands and LEH – said he recently attended a dinner for the New Jersey School Boards Association where it was announced that the state Department of Community Affairs is allocating $10 million to local municipalities looking to promote and support local shared services, and also to pay for school district consolidation studies.

The state released that news only on Sept. 26, so who knows how long it will take for that $10 million to actually flow through the bureaucratic pipeline. But considering it could have cost the LEH and Pinelands boards up to $50,000 to pay for such a study, it makes sense that the Pinelands board was all for waiting for state funds before launching out on its own.

Brown said the Pinelands district reached out to the state and the Ocean County Superintendent of Schools the very next day to say it was definitely interested in applying for study funding. But, he added, he is still awaiting a response.

So funding may be caught up in a paperwork logjam for a bit. But in the meantime, it was suggested the Pinelands board could get ahead of the issue.

“Right now it’s a little bit of a waiting game,” said Brown. “I think for now, we’re waiting for them to respond. And I think it’s up to the board to determine how proactive you want to be in getting out front.

“Certainly they indicated at that dinner that there were schools in Atlantic County that had sort of begun some preliminary discussions. And I spoke with those school districts, and they indicated the first step for them was bringing together the communities that would have to discuss it, including town councils and the school boards from those communities. And have, really, some public meetings where you have people express their concerns, their support, their objections – and really just feel out everybody’s opinions on the matter.

“And I think that would be a logical step for the (Pinelands) board to consider.

“As far as the specific assistance from the state,” Brown continued, “we have no word back from them on that yet. But certainly the board can move, independent of the state’s action, in setting up information sessions, community discussions or anything they feel is appropriate along those lines.”

Kim Hanadel, who represents Tuckerton on the Pinelands school board, said she had reached out to Sweeney’s office to see if he could visit Pinelands to hear about the district’s shared services in an effort to get a step up on state funding.

“They basically said, ‘Like, how soon do you want it – like this week, two weeks?’ And I said, ‘No, we just need it before the end of the year.’”

Expect the consolidation discussion to pick up steam in the coming months, especially if Sweeney pays a visit.

— Rick Mellerup

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