Seek voters’ opinion on school shift

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent 


Borough residents will be asked to pay extra attention when they enter the voting booth for the Nov. 4 general election.

Not only are they being asked to choose two members of the Borough Council (although the outcome will likely be decided in next month’s Democratic Primary contest), but they’ll also see a public question about the future education of their children.

That question, as it will appear on the ballot, is this: “Should East Newark high school students be sent to Kearny High School instead of Harrison High School?”

For more than a century, graduates of East Newark’s single public school – which accommodates preschool to grade 8 – have been admitted to freshman classes (and beyond) at Harrison High School but because of rising tuition fees, the East Newark Board of Education – with strong backing from Mayor Joseph Smith, who chairs the local Board of School Estimate – is actively pursuing an alternative.

Smith favors the proposal, purely for monetary reasons. He claims that by shifting to Kearny High, the borough school board – and, ultimately, the taxpayers – could save up to $400,000 a year in tuition costs. In the context of a local school budget of about $5.4 million, that could make a big difference, the mayor said.

In December 2013, the borough school board — whose president is Marlene Smith, the mayor’s wife – hired the Morristown law firm Prozio, Bromberg & Newman for up to $44,000 to undertake a feasibility study designed to make a case for East Newark to end its longstanding “sending/ receiving” school district with Harrison High School. This past March, the school boards of East Newark and Kearny independently formally endorsed the prospective new “sending/receiving” arrangement but that doesn’t mean it will happen.

Ultimately, the decision will be up to the state Commissioner of Education. Undeterred by their neighbor’s effort to uncouple the longtime partnership, Harrison school officials, desiring to retain the revenue from tuition fees, are in negotiations with their East Newark counterparts to see if a compromise can be reached.

That brings us to the November referendum, which, as noted by the resolution adopted by the Borough Council authorizing the move, will be “non-binding.” Its purpose, said Smith, “is to get the sentiment of the people” on the issue. “That’s why we set it down for November.”

And, he added, “No matter what the people vote, the state criteria [for changing the sending/receiving district setup] has to be met. That’s the law.” The feasibility study must demonstrate that the proposed change won’t impact negatively on availability of educational facilities, school finances and students’ racial balance.

Asked why he pushed for the referendum, Smith said: “I’ve been out there campaigning [on behalf of the incumbent council members aligned with him] and I’ve been hearing a mixture of opinions from residents. Some people have been saying, ‘If we save money by switching to Kearny, why not do it?’, while others are skeptical. … The attorney [hired by the school board] recommended doing [the referendum].”

When asked what he’d do if a majority of the voters opposed the move, Smith said: “We’ll give that [voting] information to the Board of Education. It’s up to the Board of Education to decide what to do. I don’t try to sell them one way or another.”

At any rate, Smith said, the legal process mandated by the state Department of Education for preparing the study and getting it reviewed by the state “can take up to a year to do – we’ve got to cross a lot of bridges before we get there.”

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