By Charles Rooney
On September 26th, Atlantic Highlands and Highlands voters went to the polls to determine if the two towns would regionalize their 3 school districts into a single PreK-12 education system. With a very light turnout of approximately 20% of registered voters, the vote was 2 to 1 in favor of regionalization. This represents Step#1. But many residents were both surprised and disappointed to learn that the referendum did not include bringing the town of Sea Bright into the new district. This is due to the fact that there has been much discussion about the inclusion of Sea Bright and that recent feasibility studies have confirmed that inclusion of Sea Bright would yield the best educational outcome for the students and tax relief for the residents.
But in the confusion and disappointment, there is a silver lining. Now that Atlantic Highlands and Highlands have formed a single purpose PreK-12 district, it clears the path for what is the logical next step #2 which is a second referendum to include Sea Bright. Key participants in this process including the Boards of Education, Superintendent Tara Beams, Town Council members, and county and state officials have all publicly stated that they look forward to a second referendum to allow voters to decide if Sea Bright will join the new district.
Supporting this eventual outcome, Acting New Jersey State Education Commissioner, Angelica Allen-McMillan stated in her letter dated September 22, 2023, that “If the referendum passes on September 26 2023, Sea bright and the newly formed school district may refile a joint request to form an enlarged regional school district”. This clearly signals her support for a second referendum vote in the very near future. Additionally, regarding the legal appeal of Oceanport and Shore Regional to block Sea Bright from joining the new regional district, she goes on to say, “Sea Bright has standing to seek withdrawal from Oceanport and Shore Regional in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:13-47.11”. This legislation enacted into law through unanimous bi-partisan approval clears the path for towns such as these 3 to legally regionalize and seek to both improve their educational systems while reducing tax burdens on the residents. The Commissioner’s letter also once again denies Oceanport and Shore Regional’s request to block Sea Bright’s withdrawal from those systems. Oceanport and Shore regional have reaped exorbitant taxes from Sea Bright over the decades and now stand to lose that due to new legislation supporting regionalization which seeks to make education more affordable in New Jersey.
So all of this puts Atlantic Highlands, Highlands, and Sea Bright on a path to finally see their 3 towns unite in a single Pre-K through 12 district. This ultimate outcome aligns with the finding of all feasibility studies recently completed which highlighted expanded educational offerings for our students and significant tax relief for our residents through such a 3 town regionalization. While Step #1 of the process is complete, it will only see modest savings on the order of $400K per year. With the inclusion of Sea Bright in the new district, it will bring greater than $22M in savings for Atlantic Highlands and Highlands over a 10-year steady state period.
Now it is up to the Boards of Education, Superintendent Tara Beams, and elected officials to follow through on their commitments. That is to advance to Step #2 which would see a new referendum submitted to the Commissioner to add Sea Bright to the newly formed district. All indications are that the Commissioner will approve such a request. Then it will be up to the voters of Atlantic Highlands, Highlands, and Sea Bright to determine if these 3 towns will finally join to form an enhanced education system at significantly lower costs for our taxpayers. For me, the right path is clear. I hope you join me in demanding that our leaders move out, live up to their commitments, and do the right thing. On to Regionalization STEP #2!
Charles Rooney, Sea Bright