N.J. Schools Debate Forced Merger To Achieve Integration

By Peter Schmidt — January 08, 1992 7 min read

HACKENSACK, N.J .--In a case with potentially major implications for New Jersey’s many small, racially imbalanced school districts, lawyers clashed in state court here last month over whether school systems should be forced to “regionalize,” or merge, to achieve racial integration.

The case, argued Dec. 17 before the appellate division of the state superior court, involves three districts that lie close to one another in northern New Jersey but whose ethnic composition--and stands on regionalization--are sharply different.

Officials of Englewood, where most students are black or Latino, have been trying ever since the dispute began seven years ago to get the state to end racial isolation by ordering a merger at the high-school level with the other two districts.

“There is no way to cure this situation without regionalization,” Arnold K. Mytelka, a lawyer for the Englewood board of education, told the superior court last month.

But Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly, which have overwhelmingly white or Asian enrollments, have strongly resisted the idea of consolidation. The two districts have moved to block State Commissioner of Education John Ellis from studying the possibility of combining districts.

Lawyers for Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly told the superior court last month that the districts should not be held responsible for integrating Englewood’s schools.

“You can’t attempt to solve the ills of one community by using heavyhanded measures on another community just because we border it,” said Joel D. Siegal, a lawyer for Englewood Cliffs.

Sanctioning ‘White Flight’?

Englewood’s student population is more than 85 percent black or Latino, while Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly are more than 95 percent white or Asian.

Englewood Cliffs has no high school. Since 1965, it has had an agreement with Englewood under which its students attend Englewood’s Dwight Morrow High School.

Over the years, however, most Englewood Cliffs parents have opted either to send their children to private schools or to pay to enroll them in public high schools in other districts. The number of Englewood Cliffs students attending Dwight Morrow has dropped from 119 in 1982 to 7 this year.

In 1985, after years of voicing dissatisfaction with the education being offered at Dwight Morrow, Englewood Cliffs appealed to then-Commissioner Saul Cooperman to terminate its agreement with Englewood. Instead, Englewood Cliffs officials asked to be allowed to send district students to Tenafly High School.

In response, Englewood filed a cross-petition asking the commissioner to consolidate Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, and Tenafly into one regional high-school district. Doing so, Englewood maintained, would draw more racially balanced enrollments into both Tenafly High and Dwight Morrow.

Mr. Cooperman refused to dissolve the agreement between Englewood Cliffs and Englewood, claiming that to do so would allow state-sanctioned “white flight.” At Englewood’s request, he also barred Tenafly High School from accepting Englewood and Englewood Cliffs students on a tuition basis.

The commissioner declined to order a merger of the districts, however, and said there was no compelling reason for even studying regionalization as an option in the case.

Regionalization Study Resisted

Mr. Cooperman’s action failed to settle the matter, though, and both sides continued to press their case.

The next major development in the dispute came last June, when the new state commissioner, Mr. Ellis, recommended to the state board that a consulting firm be hired to study the possibility of regionalizing the three districts. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)

“The continuing decline in enrollment of Englewood Cliffs students at Dwight Morrow High School, as well as the evident reluctance of the parties to resolve this dispute without intervention, speak volumes,” Mr. Ellis told the board, which responded by authorizing the regionalization study in July.

Accusing Mr. Ellis of capriciously overturning the previous commissioner’s decision, Englewood Cliffs and Tenafly then appealed to the state superior court to halt the regionalization study.

Lawyers for Englewood Cliffs asserted in a brief to the court that, just by raising the possibility of regionalization, the state may spur white flight from that district and harm its property values. The existence of such a regionalization study also would hinder the district’s ability to plan courses or to attract teachers or students, the brief contended.

Englewood Cliffs charged that regionalization would unconstitutionally infringe on the district’s home rule and leave it with a minority on any combined regional board.

State Responsibility Seen

In Superior Court last month, Mr. Mytelka, the lawyer for Englewood, urged the three-judge panel to make a decision on regionalization even before completion of the study.

Although Englewood is funded as well or better than the other two districts, its students are being harmed by being placed in a school that has an overwhelmingly minority enrollment and is regarded as inferior by whites in neighboring communities, Mr. Mytelka argued.

Englewood was backed in its urging of regionalization by lawyers from the office of the state public advocate, Wilfredo Caraballo, who last spring filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case arguing that the state had a constitutional and statutory responsibility to integrate its schools by whatever means necessary, including the merging of districts. The New Jersey constitution bars both de jure and de facto racial segregation in public schools, and the state supreme court has given the state commissioner both the power and the duty to order regionalization to remedy de facto segregation, the public advocate’s brief said.

The brief cited as a key precedent the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1971 decision, Jenkins v. Township of Morris School District, in which the court ordered the commissioner to merge the 40 percent black and Hispanic district of Morristown with the overwhelmingly white adjoining district of Morris Township.

Mr. Caraballo’s brief accused the state education department and board of education of refusing to fulfill their duties under Jenkins by interpreting the decision as applying only to districts that constitute a “single community.”

As a result of the state’s inaction, the brief said, New Jersey has become one of the four most segregated states in the nation, with two-thirds of its black and Hispanic students attending public schools in 7 percent of the state’s 591 operating districts.

Although the public advocate’s brief was sharply criticized by some state lawmakers, Gov. James J. Florio declined to order Mr. Caraballo to stay out of the matter. But, in a statement issued in August, Mr. Florio said his administration “has no plans to force regionalization of schools for any reason” because it would interfere with the site-based management and parental involvement that are key goals of the state’s most recent school-reform law.

‘Very Different Districts’

Although his office sits on the same road that runs by the Englewood district offices, Superintendent Gerald S. DeGrow of Tenafly emphasizes the great gap between the two school systems.

“These are very, very distinct places,” Mr. DeGrow said last month. “People think differently. They act differently.”

The students in the two districts perform differently as well, with the standardized test scores of Tenafly High School students consistently higher than those of Dwight Morrow students and among the best in the state. The academic excellence of Tenafly High “is what some of our residents fear would be lost in a joint venture,” Mr. DeGrow said.

Mr. DeGrow and his district’s lawyers have asked why Englewood has not looked to other, more closely linked neighboring districts, such as Cresskill or Bergenfield, in its quest for regionalization.

Lawyers for Englewood Cliffs, meanwhile, have asserted that Englewood could integrate itself by making the educational improvements needed to lure the children of white residents out of private schools.

But Superintendent Henry Oliver of Englewood countered that Tenafly enmeshed itself in the case by offering to accept students from Englewood Cliffs. There are not enough white children in Englewood to bring its district close to having the racial composition of its neighbors, he added.

“We live in a pluralistic nation,” Mr. Oliver said. “Why are we playing this game of isolationism?”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as N.J. Schools Debate Forced Merger To Achieve Integration