By Ron Leir
EAST NEWARK –
For much of its entire 118- year history, since it broke away from Kearny’s First Ward, the borough of East Newark (population 2,400) has maintained a single public school for kindergarten to grade 8 and has consistently sent its graduates to high school in neighboring Harrison.
Now, however, the borough is going shopping for a new high school and might even look to the place it separated from so many years ago – Kearny.
“It simply comes down to money,” said Mayor Joseph Smith, who chairs the borough’s Board of School Estimate, which fixes the local school tax rate.
Smith said that the borough is looking elsewhere, not because it’s unhappy with the education its kids are getting in Harrison, but rather, because of rising tuition costs, “and that’s between 40% and 50% of our school budget.”
For the 2012-2013 school year, the East Newark Board of Education paid Harrison’s school district $14,674 for every borough student attending Harrison High School, Smith said. For the 2009-2010 school year, the rate was $11,067 per student, he said. But, for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year, Smith said Harrison had proposed charging $16,900 per student, “but when we hollered and screamed about that, they agreed to bring it down to $16,300.”
In the meantime, the board has filed an appeal of the Harrison tuition rate on the grounds that it’s still too fiscally onerous for borough taxpayers. And its attorney has filed an Open Public Records Act request with the Harrison school district for the past decade of tuition records. “We’re asking them for documentation to justify what they’re charging,” Smith said.
For that reason, Smith said, the borough is exploring the possibility of sending its kids to Kearny High School. The tuition rate would be lower than Harrison’s and there’s room at KHS for East Newark’s kids, according to Smith.
“We’re looking at possibly running one or two buses to get our kids to Kearny and back,” he added.
Harrison Schools Superintendent James Doran commented: “The parents of East Newark children are being well-served by Harrison. We don’t see how it would be in the children’s best safety and health interests to travel to Kearny.”
If Kearny’s school board were to accept the proposition, Smith said the borough wouldn’t be inclined to do an all or nothing switch involving grades 9 to 12. “We’d maybe look to keep the juniors and seniors in Harrison, initially, and start with incoming freshmen and sophomores,” he said.
Currently, East Newark has 119 youths attending Harrison High but it’s projecting it will have 139 enrolled by the fall term.
But before anything could happen, East Newark would first have to get the state’s okay to make any switch.
Under state school law, the Board of Education of either a “sending” school district (in this case, East Newark) or “receiving” district (Harrison) must petition the state Commissioner of Education to terminate the existing relationship based on statutory criteria set by N.J. Statute Title 18A: 38-13, including, for example, financial instability being created for one district or the other.
To make its case, the East Newark school board would have to do a feasibility study to be submitted to the Commissioner to judge the merits of the petition for withdrawal.
According to N.J. School Boards Association spokesman Michael Yaple, there have been 21 petitions for withdrawal from sending/receiving relationships filed by various districts from around the state since 1982. “While we don’t keep a won/loss count,” Yaple said, “we can say, anecdotally, it’s been running about 50/50.”
If East Newark loses its tuition appeal, Smith said the school board may be looking at having to revise its budget to absorb the increase in tuition fees by making cuts to services such as preventive maintenance, field trips, and so forth.
“We’d have to cut everything other than what’s academics-related, to the bone,” Smith said, “unless the state would agree to increase our state aid or give us extraordinary aid.” The alternative, he said, is to retain those services and increase taxes.