Borough voters getting school question

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent 

EAST NEWARK – 

A court ruling has cleared the way – over objections by Harrison – for a Nov. 4 nonbinding referendum asking borough voters, “Should East Newark high school students be sent to Kearny High School instead of Harrison High School?”

Harrison Board of Education argued that the question shouldn’t go on the ballot because the proposal came, not from the borough school board, but from the municipality, which, Harrison said, has no statutory authority to pitch such a school-related issue.

But Hudson County Assignment Judge Peter Bariso Jr., in an Oct. 20 opinion, found that the potential shifting of students from Harrison to Kearny can have local tax ramifications borne by the East Newark Board of School Estimate, whose members represent both the borough school board and municipality.

For that reason, the court ruled, “East Newark has the authority not only to take action on the sending receiving relationship within the scope of its budgetary responsibilities but also to proffer the referendum related to it.”

Harrison also objected to the submission of the interpretive statement attached to the referendum by the Borough Clerk as legally deficient, and the court agreed, but, nonetheless, found that in this case, it was “not required because there is no statute or constitutional amendment at issue [or] even needed because the language of the public question is perfectly clear.”

Meanwhile, the borough school board has positioned itself to petition the state Commissioner of Education to consider the proposed high school switch with the completion of a 62-page feasibility study prepared by educational consultant Statistical Forecasting LLC, headed by Richard Grip, in conjunction with attorney Peter E. Carter and CPA James L. Kirtland, that formally recommends the change.

The study says the “chief reason” for the proposed change in schools “is the tuition cost” — currently $16,300 per pupil charged by Harrison versus the $12,600 that Kearny would charge. About 120 East Newark students attend Harrison High.

The study looked at three areas – financial impact, educational programs and racial impact – which the Commissioner of Education will assess in deciding whether to allow the switch of schools.

On financial impact, the consultant found that between the 2010 and 2014 school years, East Newark’s high school tuition “has more than doubled,” causing “an increase in tuition costs of over $1 million” and prompting the borough to raise its local tax levy by $174,212.”

Meanwhile, the consultant noted, East Newark’s high school-age student population is expected to grow, pushing tuition costs up even more. If the trend continues, by the 2018-19 school year, Harrison may have to expand its space, which would likely cause further tuition increases, the consultant said.

With the proposed switch, the consultant determined, the cost to Harrison for the lost tuition revenue would amount to about a $22 tax increase on a home assessed at $140,000 while East Newark and Kearny would see an annual tax decrease: between $250,000 and $435,000 for East Newark and about $400,000 for Kearny.

“Therefore, there are no significant negative financial consequences that should impede the proposed change in the sending-receiving relationship,” the consultant said.

In comparing educational programs, the study notes that while both high schools have similar academic achievement records, Kearny offers 10 Advanced Placement courses – twice as many as Harrison – and Kearny’s post-secondary enrollment rate is listed as 71% versus Harrison’s 58%. Additionally, the study points out, Kearny has “a wide variety of courses in its Life Skills, Business and Technology, and Occupational Development Departments.” Although a higher percentage of students take the SAT in Harrison (65.9% vs. Kearny’s 54.7%), “the average student SAT score is higher at Kearny (1390) than at Harrison (1328).”

“There is no doubt in the mind of this consultant that, given the data displayed in this study, the students from East Newark can receive a thorough and efficient secondary education at Kearny High School, and at a lower cost than currently charged by Harrison,” the report says.

In examining potential racial impact (the second state review area) of the proposed shift, the consultant concluded that there would be no significant changes to either Harrison or Kearny if the switch happened.

The Observer Staff