Salem County is studying the creation of what would be New Jersey’s first countywide school district.

The Morristown-based law firm Porzio, Bromberg & Newman P.C. is examining the educational, financial and demographic impact of a potential school consolidation. The Salem County freeholder board hired it for the feasibility study, which is being paid for with a state grant.

There have been only a few school mergers in the state, and Vito Gagliardi Jr., Porzio’s managing principal, said that if a countywide district is created “this would be the grandest example of school consolidation in the history of New Jersey.”

The study could be the first in a series of consolidation efforts, as officials look for way to tame New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation average property tax bills.

“There are I wouldn’t necessarily say countywide opportunities but certain sections of certain counties, depending on geography and depending on enrollment, depending on finances, that may look at this,” Gagliardi said.

“The current state of public-school funding is even more treacherous than usual here in New Jersey, so for some small districts, it’s a matter of survival, not necessarily a matter of opportunity when you have consolidation to be considered,” he said.

Salem County is New Jersey’s least populous county, with an estimated 62,000 residents. It has 14 school districts that enroll around 11,000 students – around 700 to 800 per grade level.

“It seems to make sense to start with Salem County, since Salem County does have the fewest school districts and the smallest number of students,” said Kerri Wright, principal of Porzio and co-chair of its Education and Employment team. “Given the size of the county, that’s a good place to start.”

The study is now its first phase: information gathering. A demographer will study whether parts of the county have declining enrollment and excess space or are expected to outgrow what they have. Factors also include geographic restrictions in the rural county, differences in union contracts and districts’ debt.

“When you’re looking to consolidate school districts, whether it’s two districts or 14 districts, there are two irrefutably critical elements of the assessment,” Gagliardi said. “The first is the educational component, which is: Can you demonstrate to the community not only that its educational program is not going to be jeopardized in any way but that the consolidation will enhance it.”

“Then the second is the financial aspect of it, which is: Is the consolidation going to be good for taxpayers?” he said. “You can’t possibly ask a community to surrender a certain degree of autonomy over its educational program and point out that in exchange for surrendering autonomy, there’s going to be an increase in cost.”

Gagliardi said it’s not a certainty that the study would recommend a single countywide district and that the conclusion could be for multiple regional districts.

Wright said it’s important that any recommendation for change benefits every community because any consolidation would be decided in a referendum in each municipality impacted.

“The current state (law) basically provides to any school district more or less veto power to being pulled into a regional school district. They have the right to decide that,” Wright said.

Gagliardi said that’s why a transparent process with deep, publicly available data is critical.

“At the end of the day, the public decides,” Gagliardi said. “In my view, it’s the purest exercise of democracy you can imagine. People get an opportunity to decide how their children are educated and how their tax dollars are spent.”

The work is supposed to be completed by late February but it may take longer because the coronavirus pandemic has restricted travel to schools and extended the amount of time schools and other public entities have to respond to public records requests.

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