Superstorm Sandy illustrates why having too many school districts can be a problem

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

As New Jersey assesses the damage imposed by Hurricane Sandy – Eqecat, a disaster modeling firm, estimates damages for the entire region will likely be in the $30 billion to $50 billion range – a number of environmental and engineering experts are calling for a reevaluation of our propensity for building in vulnerable areas.

The state’s attention has been focused — necessarily –on loss of life and homes, deficits in our power grid and sand dunes, the architecture of sea walls — but there’s been little talk of the storm’s impact on public schools and the opportunity for some smarter planning there as well. Yup, it’s that dirty word “consolidation,” but maybe it’s worth a reassessment in the context of Sandy’s devastation.

Do we automatically rebuild? Or do we thoughtfully rethink our susceptible school infrastructure? Historically, arguments in favor of school consolidation have focused on our expensive and inefficient system of 600 school districts, more per square mile than any other state in the country. But maybe there’s another reason to reimagine our public schools as we watch N.J.’s students and teachers face relocation and interruptions in learning amidst our storm-trashed areas.

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Here are a few examples of districts harshly affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Beach Haven Elementary School (Ocean County) which serves 75 students in grades preschool through sixth, still has two feet of water on the first floor, and the students there are attending Eagleswood Elementary School, 17 miles away. Eagleswood serves 136 kids grades preschool through sixth. Is it worth reconsidering the renovation of Beach Haven Elementary School?

• In Union Beach (Monmouth County), all 700 preschool-8th grade students enrolled in Memorial Elementary School have been relocated to other districts until at least the end of 2012 due to “severe damage” sustained during the hurricane.

Moonachie School District in Bergen County consists of one elementary school, preschool – 8th grade, which serves 267 children. Flooding was so devastating during the storm that school officials are installing 32,000 square feet of modulars while they undertake reconstruction of the original structure. Students in Moonachie have been attending schools in the Wood-Ridge area.

• And there’s this notice from Cape May County’s Stone Harbor Elementary School: “Due to damage from Hurricane Sandy, the staff and students of Stone Harbor have temporarily relocated to Avalon Elementary School.” Stone Harbor enrolls 74 kids, grades K-8. Avalon Elementary enrolls 75 kids, grades K-8.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Bill Wolfe, a former analyst for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection who now leads the watchdog group New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says, “There needs to be an acknowledgement that we can’t keep on doing what we’ve done in the past. We have to face up to the problem.”

Wolfe refers to excessive development on Jersey’s coast. But the same could be said for the redundant and profligate sprawl of our public school system.

It’s not for lack of trying. During the Corzine Administration, a slew of new legislation and regulations called for a new high-level post, one per county, called Executive County Superintendent. These super-superintendents had many responsibilities; their primary mandate, however, was to study school consolidation. From Bill 18A:

“No later than three years following the effective date of sections 42 to 58 of P.L.2007, c.63 (C.18A:7-11 et al.), (the Executive County Superintendent will) recommend to the commissioner a school district consolidation plan to eliminate all districts, other than county-based districts and other than preschool or kindergarten through grade 12 districts in the county, through the establishment or enlargement of regional school districts.”

School consolidation plans were due in March of 2010 and most were obediently filed with the N.J. DOE. Opposition from NJEA and NJ School Boards Association was fierce. (Fewer teacher union bargaining units and fewer school board members? Harrumph.) In May of 2010 then-Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler announced that the initiative was on hold until the Legislature was willing to fund financial and educational impact studies. End of story.

Or not. Maybe, just maybe, in the wake of our affliction from Hurricane Sandy, we’re ready for a thoughtful reassessment of our profusion of school buildings and our disdain for school district consolidation. It’s a logical corollary to the new interest in rethinking reconstruction in storm-vulnerable areas and has the added benefit of protecting children, teachers, and school districts from educational disruption.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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