Why Sweeney feels sweeping reforms start with education

Michael Ein Senate President Steve Sweeney, right, disagrees with Gov. Phil Murphy, left, on taxes in the state budget.

A sweeping reform of education was perhaps slightly overlooked in the (here we go again) massive recommendations on pension and benefit reforms presented earlier this month by a 25-member task force convened by state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

It’s not surprising. Any discussion involving the crippling pensions and benefits promised to state employees usually dominates the room. After all, it is the issue that will prove (is proving) to be the downfall of the state.

Sweeney’s group, however, appears to be trying to attack it from a different angle.

In an editorial board meeting with ROI-NJ, Sweeney (along with a few advisers, including Marc Pfeiffer and Michael Lahr) made the case that the proposal to consolidate schools — in short, forcing all school districts to be K-12 — could be a major step toward the state being able to balance its books.

In addition to the potential savings — in theory, eliminating K-6 and K-8 districts would eliminate layers (read huge salaries/benefits) of overlapping administrators — Sweeney (D-West Deptford) hopes it will set a precedent.

He’s hoping that consolidating schools will help others see consolidation of services can be done effectively and smartly.

And there’s no better place to start than with the kids.

“We have to get the curriculum correct first,” Sweeney said. “We have to make sure the kids that are going to the same high schools are all getting the same instruction — so that, when they get to 9th grade, everybody has learned the same things.

“I’ve talked to a handful of superintendents. Regional frustration is beyond belief. They can’t even coordinate schedules. They can’t even agree to have the same days off.”

Sweeney says it’s the reason a regional high school could get groups of kids from a number of sending districts who have been taught how to learn — and what to learn — differently.

“I’m not saying we don’t want to have good schools,” he said. “I’m saying they don’t have to be this expensive.”

No one is against a proposal to give our kids a great education at a lower cost.

Even Sweeney’s greatest adversary (the teachers union) is in favor of that.

Politics being what they are, Sweeney knows it won’t be an easy sell.

The rift between Sweeney and the New Jersey Education Association may be too wide and too deep to ever heal. And Sweeney needs to get on the same page with Gov. Phil Murphy, who is promising his own ideas, too.

It’s the reason Sweeney is trying to educate the public (and public officials) of the benefits of the recommendations from his bipartisan panel of experts, including Ray Caprio (from Rutgers University) and a former education commissioner, Lucille Day, now with Mason Griffin & Pierson.

“Ray and Lucille both have enormous credibility in this area,” Sweeney said. “You might want to argue with me, Steve Sweeney, senator. But argue with a couple of experts. Argue with the professionals. You have a hard time arguing with their knowledge.”

Sweeney has no timeline for the implementation of any of the panel’s recommendations.

He has hopes and plans to bring the discussion around the state, to school boards and other municipal bodies. He knows the fight will be long and hard. But he’s confident there is low-hanging fruit to be had along the way.

He’s hoping it will start with education reform.

Sweeney said he’s pleased the initial reaction has been positive.

“Normally, when you talk about the type of change that we talked about, you meet enormous opposition,” he said. “I think people know we’re serious about this. That, sometimes, is a difference, too. You force a serious conversation.

“And if you’re really looking internally, what’s best for the kids is this concept that we’re talking about.”

Sweeney stressed it’s not about making kids leave their neighborhood schools, it’s about making those neighborhood schools more efficient.

He said he proved the value of consolidation when he was a freeholder in Gloucester County, as he helped merge the schools for special services and vocational training.

“We left the contracts separate, but we had one administration,” he said. “We got rid of a superintendent, we got rid of one building’s administration (and) saved $750,000 in Year One.”

These type of savings — ones with no loss of services — can be found in a lot of different places in state government, Sweeney said.

Education may just be the best place to start because it impacts so many — and does it in tangible ways residents can see.

The state, he said, has to start somewhere. And it has to start now.

“I think a lot of people realize something has to happen here,” he said. “(I’m) not trying to undersell or oversell this; it’s not going to be an overnight fix. It’s going to take time.

“But in order to fix New Jersey, we’ve got to fix the government side of it. And the way we spend money. The numbers don’t lie.”

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