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Consolidation Proposed To Help Defuse Tensions Between 2 New Jersey Districts

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By Jonathan Weisman

Creation of a regional school district could be one way to settle a long-running New Jersey dispute over whether a predominantly white school district should be required to send its high-school students to a largely black district, the state school chief has recommended.

Commissioner of Education John Ellis made the recommendation to the state board of education this month as part of a strategy to defuse tensions between Englewood Cliffs, whose student population is 95 percent white or Asian, and Englewood, where 86 percent of the students are black or Latino.

In 1985, Englewood Cliffs appealed to then-Commissioner Saul Cooperman to terminate its 21-year agreement with Englewood, under which the upper-middle-class district, which has no high school, sends its students to Englewood's Dwight Morrow High School.

Englewood Cliffs claimed that the school was educationally deficient and instead proposed to send its students to Tenafly High School, where student enrollment is 96 percent white or Asian.

Mr. Cooperman refused to dissolve the agreement, claiming that to do so would allow "state-sanctioned white flight."

He also ordered the Tenafly district to stop accepting Englewood Cliffs students, who were attending Tenafly High on a tuition-paying basis.

Englewood Cliffs parents have since responded by pulling their children out of public education altogether, according to Mr. Ellis.

The number of students from Englewood Cliffs attending Dwight Morrow has dropped from 119 in 1982 to 12 this year. And no new students from Englewood Cliffs are expected at the high school next year.

This month's action follows an unsuccessful appeal by EnglewoodCliffs to the state supreme court.

Mr. Ellis recommended that the board approve an independent study of regionalization possibilities. Regionalization is favored by Englewood administrators, who contend that sharing the resources of Tenafly and Englewood Cliffs would improve Englewood schools' performance and lure Englewood Cliffs students back to Dwight Morrow.

Final action by the board on the plan is expected in July.

State officials insisted that re8gionalization did not necessarily mean consolidation. Nevertheless, observers said the recommendation had broad potential implications for a state school system that, with 611 districts, has long been criticized as administratively top-heavy.

Regionalization could take the form of consolidating only the high-school levels of Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, and Tenafly; creating interdistrict magnet schools; or combining the three districts entirely, according to Englewood's superintendent, Henry Oliver.

In addition to the recommendation, Commissioner Ellis directed the superintendents and boards of education of Englewood and Englewood Cliffs to meet monthly to assess attendance at Dwight Morrow. He also ordered the districts to hold joint activities to "promote appreciation of multicultural society," prepare materials to encourage Englewood Cliffs students to enroll in Dwight Morrow, and hire an independent consultant to ensure interdistrict cooperation.

The final directive was criticized by Superintendent Gregg Hauser of Englewood Cliffs, who said his financially strapped district may have to lay off staff as a result. Mr. Hauser also took issue with Mr. Ellis's public statements characterizing race as a factor in the dispute.

"I think that's pretty darn naive," Mr. Hauser said last week. "I think that's a simple answer to a complex question that involves socioeconomic status, the educational product ... and [student] safety."

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