A process once considered dead has been resurrected and will be taking a major step forward this week, as elected officials from the Mendhams and Chesters will come together and pursue the dissolving of the West Morris Regional High School district.
On Thursday night at the Mendham Township municipal building at 7 p.m., mayors from Chester Township, Chester Borough, Mendham Township and Mendham Borough will gather, along with an additional representative from each of their governing bodies, and hear two consulting firms speak on the scope of a feasibility study that would analyze two different ways to reconfigure local school districts.
The first option to be studied would create a mega-K12 district that would envelop Mendham Township, Mendham Borough, and Chester School districts’ K-8 grades with Mendham High School.
The second option would be to leave all K-8 districts as they are, but make Mendham High School its own school district.
Both options would split Mendham High School away from its sister school, West Morris Central, in the regional district.
Two firms that have come forward both specialize in school district reconfiguration. The first is Vito Gagliardi, Jr. of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman in Morristown. According to Gagliardi’s resume, he’s overseen the only three regional school district dissolutions in New Jersey state history. He’ll bring with him experts on education and demography, according to Mendham Borough Mayor Neil Henry, who was chosen to serve as chairman for the ad hoc committee.
The other firm, from New York state, is Center for Government Research, or CGR, which specializes in “strategic guidance and implementation assistance to public sector, educational and nonprofit clients,” according to its website.
No formal action is expected to be taken Thursday night, but the officials hope to have answers to outstanding questions resolved, Henry said. A follow-up, “offline” meeting will likely take place between the mayors after Thursday night’s session to further discuss which consultant to choose.
The total amount of money going into the project is $55,000, with three of the towns contributing $15,000, and Chester Township allotting $10,000. Originally the quad of municipalities agreed on $35,000, with Chester Borough kicking in $5,000, while each of the other three towns would contribute $10,000.
First of Many Steps
Of course, simply choosing a consultant to conduct the feasibility study is just the first step in a very long process, Henry said.
Once the study is finished and a recommendation on one of the two options is made, each mayor from his or her respective towns will need to receive approval from the governing body to take the next step.
Three of the four towns would need to approve moving forward, and in that case a set of public questions would be put on a ballot for voters to decide, Henry said.
The questions would be two-fold: First, voters would decide if they want the regional district dissolved. Second, residents would then need to decide which configuration they would like to see; a Mendham-Chester K-12 district, or the high school standing alone as its own district.
The caveat, and potential deal maker or breaker in the voting booth, is that a majority of the governing bodies in at least three of the four towns, majority of those school boards, and majority of those towns' voters would need to approve the dissolution to the regional high school district. While Washington Township would have no vote on the questions being put on a ballot, voters in that municipality would have the opportunity to approve or deny the questions once and if they were put on the ballot, Henry said.
While moving forward with a fresh perspective, the process is not a new one and has been analyzed over the years. The most recent iteration began in June 2011 when members of the region’s school boards and governing bodies came together for a first-ever summit to discuss options of consolidation and dissolution.
Ten months later, a presentation by the New Jersey Department of Education offered analysis and answers to many outstanding questions regarding the regional school district and its configuration and spending formula. From there, an ad hoc mayors committee was formed by the five towns. After a series of closed door meetings, the group could not come to terms on the best way to address the configuration and walked away from the process.
In the time since, mayors from the Chesters and Mendhams have congregated to work on commissioning a feasibility study to analyze the two options currently on the table.
Thursday night’s meeting is open to the public and residents from all towns are encouraged to attend.
Editor's note: This article has been amended multiple times. To clarify, Washington Township would not vote on the restructuring questions being put on a ballot for public vote. It would, however, be able to vote on such a measure if and when it was put to a vote for the entire district.