Getting serious about separating

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


East Newark school officials, who’ve been doing a lot of talking about a permanent “recess” for borough students who attend Harrison High, have taken a big step to try to make that happen.

On Monday night, the borough Board of Education voted 7-0 to put their money where their mouth is by hiring a law firm to carry out the separation plan.

The board appointed Porzio, Bromberg & Newman of Morristown as special counsel for an amount not to exceed $44,000 “for the purpose of facilitating a feasibility study regarding its sending-receiving relationship with the Harrison Board of Education” for “all appropriate action” in connection with that goal.

That action could mean that after completing eighth grade at East Newark Public School, borough kids would go to Kearny High School, instead of Harrison High, where they’ve gone, essentially, since the neighboring communities have existed.

But, of late, the East Newark school district, backed by the municipal government, has balked at paying what they consider to be a high tuition rate charged by the Harrison school district – a rate it claims will cause hardship for local taxpayers.

East Newark has already partly broken with the Harrison district by setting up its own pre-school program – currently, for 18 children – instead of sending those children to Harrison which, in turn, farmed out the kids to a private child care center.

Borough school records show that the district paid Harrison tuition fees of $14,764 per child to send students to Harrison High during the 2012-2013 school year but is being charged more than $16,000 per child for this school year. Last school year, East Newark’s enrollment at Harrison High averaged 98; so far, this year, it’s averaging 124.

Kearny’s school district is reportedly receptive to the idea of accommodating East Newark students at its high school, which is currently being renovated while Kearny students continue with classes.

East Newark School Superintendent/ Principal William Shlala said the issue at hand “comes down to cost effectiveness,” noting that currently, Kearny’s tuition rate stands at about $12,000 per student.

Shlala said: “Forty percent percent of our budget is tuition we pay to Harrison,” which, according to Borough School Business Administrator Tim Havlusch, totaled $1.48 million for 2012-2013.

During the summer, the Harrison school board sued to prevent East Newark from pulling out of the pre-school arrangement but, after it was demonstrated that the arrangement was based solely on a one-year contract between the districts, Harrison dropped its complaint.

And, in a separate legal action on Harrison’s objection to East Newark’s efforts to extricate itself from the Harrison High arrangement, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Leslie Celentano concluded that was a matter for the state Department of Education to rule on.

So, to that end, the East Newark school is engaging the Morristown law firm to follow the statutory process prescribed for breaking with Harrison. The law firm, in turn, will be relying on several experts – Statistical Forecasting LLC, a Secaucusbased educational consulting firm specializing in demographics and enrollment projections; N.J. retired educational administrator Peter E. Carter; and Berkeley Heights accountant James L. Kirtland to make its case.

They must prove – to the satisfaction of the state Commissioner of Education – that the termination of a “sending”/ “receiving” district relationship between East Newark and Harrison will have no adverse impact on racial diversity of the student population, quality of education or finances.

A big reason East Newark’s school board opted for the Porzio law firm is that one of the firm’s principals, Vito Gagliardi Jr., has had prior success handling similar cases in the state. As noted in his resume, posted on the firm’s website, Gagliardi “pioneered a dual sending-receiving agreement between two small school districts in order to keep them both cost-effective and viable” and also “oversaw the only three regional school district dissolutions in New Jersey state history ….”

Unfortunately, the process won’t happen overnight. By Shlala’s estimate, it could take as long as a year and a half before a decision is reached by the state – unless both sides can agree to some type of compromise settlement along the way.

In the meantime, Shlala said that the district will have to proceed on the assumption that it is going to have to pay the Harrison tuition rate, at least for the current school year, and, likely, for the following year, which means it will be faced with some tough budget decisions on possible cuts to services and programs in lieu of raising school taxes.

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