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Seaside Heights-Toms River School Merger Rejected Despite Mainland Landslide

Former Gov. Chris Christie cuts the ribbon reopening the Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School following Superstorm Sandy, Sept. 5, 2013. (Photo: Governor's Office/ Tim Larsen)

Former Gov. Chris Christie cuts the ribbon reopening the Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School following Superstorm Sandy, Sept. 5, 2013. (Photo: Governor’s Office/ Tim Larsen)

A vote to consolidate the Seaside Heights preschool-to-6th grade school district into the larger Toms River Regional K-12 school district was supported by an overwhelming majority Tuesday in Toms River and several other mainland communities that make up the state’s largest suburban school system – but Seaside Heights voters rejected the plan, leaving the status quo in place and maintaining the independent Seaside Heights school district and the Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School.

Seaside Heights will also retain its relationship with the Central Regional School District.

According to the Ocean County Clerk’s office, the school district merger was supported by a staggering 84.89 percent of voters in favor of the move. Altogether, 7,312 ‘yes’ votes were cast versus 1,301 ‘no’ votes. The results, with 76 electoral districts reporting, have yet to be formally certified by the county elections board.

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Out of the 76 districts, just one voted against the measure – Seaside Heights itself – whose single voting district turned out 231 ‘no’ votes versus 167 ‘yes’ votes. All of the remaining 75 districts voted ‘yes’ in strong numbers, including many in Toms River that eclipsed 90-10 voting margins. But in order for the merger to move forward, both the TRRS districts as well as Seaside Heights voters both had to approve the measure. The fact that it failed in Seaside Heights means the plan has essentially been scuttled.

Overall Vote:

Seaside Heights Vote:

Voters in all of the constituent districts of the Toms River Regional district, plus Seaside Heights, were eligible to cast votes. Voter turnout, including those who participated via mail-in and in-person ballots, was 9.99 percent. Out of 86,530 eligible voters, 8,613 cast votes. Residents of Toms River, South Toms River, Beachwood, and Pine Beach could have participated in addition to Seaside Heights.

Immediate Next Steps

Local officials had been touting the potential benefits of school consolidation for months despite local opposition from teachers and some families of students from the Boyd school. As a compromise, TRRS Superintendent Michael Citta determined the Boyd school could remain open for as long as five years as long as 125 students or more attended classes there. Seaside Heights teachers would have maintained both their employment and seniority status in Toms River.

After the five-year period – or earlier if student population had dropped – the Boyd school’s ownership would have reverted to the municipal government and the local school district would have been dissolved. It would then have been the decision of the borough council to decide how to repurpose the building. Now, the Boyd school will remain in the hands of the Seaside Heights Board of Education.

What Does the Rejection Mean?

The rejection of the referendum question by Seaside Heights voters means the status quo will be maintained for the time being, however it is also expected that the state will begin its own deep-dive into the finances and operations of the Seaside Heights district.

Students will continue to attend the Boyd school for preschool through sixth grade, then transition to Central Regional Middle School and Central Regional High School. The Toms River merger would have seen students educated at East Dover Elementary School, Toms River Intermediate School East and Toms River High School East, with some students who require special services, a particularly relevant factor for Seaside Heights’ students, who historically have come from families that are transient and often non-English speaking at home, may have been bused to schools with specialized programming.

Education-based factors led the authors of a state report on the potential consolidation to recommend its passage, finding that students would likely benefit from TRRS’s larger pool of resources and for curriculum to be unified. Currently, Seaside Heights and Central Regional both set their own curriculum and materials.

According to an information statement released by officials, a “no” vote means the Hugh J. Boyd Jr. Elementary School remains part of the Seaside Heights School District “unless and until declining enrollment or the state-directed efforts at regionalization dictate otherwise.”

Also, officials said, a “no” vote will lead to a “rigorous evaluation of the Hugh J. Boyd Jr. Elementary School’s budget, including teaching staff and non-teaching staff personnel requirements, contracting, and other appropriations.”

Financial Impact

In the immediate future, there will be no significant financial impact for Seaside Heights residents, though mainland communities were expected to see small property tax reductions thanks to the influx of students, aid and ratables that Seaside Heights would have added to the district.

For the next 10 years, Seaside Heights property owners would have been transitioned onto the Toms River Regional district’s tax equalization scale. During that decade-long period, Seaside Heights would have been subsidized, however in year 11, Seaside Heights would have become subject to the same formula for the purposes of tax levies as every other municipality within TRRS. If Seaside Heights’ property values increased significantly with new construction and redevelopment, this would likely have meant an eventual tax increase, while mainland towns would have sees a slight decrease in their levies.

Residents of the other member districts of TRRS were predicted to see tax decreases, and the regional district’s leadership believed the consolidation effort may have qualified it for additional state funding due to the influx of students with special needs after years of state-imposed funding cuts that have led to staffing and programming cuts at the behest of Trenton.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who signed the legislation slashing funding to TRRS and other local districts, recently made controversial remarks suggesting Toms River and similar districts simply close schools as a result of the cuts. Though New Jersey is spending more on education than ever before, many local officials have complained that class sizes have been rapidly rising in Ocean County’s largest districts while tax dollars have been re-directed to districts in regions of the state that are more politically supportive of the Democratic governor. More recent legislation has restored some funding for regional districts with more than five constituent communities, leading Toms River school officials to strongly support the measure under the premise that Seaside Heights would serve as that fifth district. Its numbers of students requiring special services and entitled to free preschool classes may have also opened up new state aid opportunities, including a accelerated start to the district’s own universal preschool service.

Seaside Heights, unrelated to the referendum vote, will host a regularly-scheduled borough council meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the council chambers above the borough’s firehouse. Coincidentally, the Toms River Regional Board of Education also has a regularly-scheduled meeting Thursday, which will be held at Toms River High School North at 7:30 p.m.

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