"You don't have to live in Fair Haven, but you do have to act like you live in Fair Haven."
That's a salient qualifying factor for the school district's next superintendent, search consultant Rich Morasco, of Leadership Advantage, told a group of about 15 people Thursday night who attended a forum to field ideas and concerns about who should replace the district's superintendent, Kathleen Cronin, when she retires effective June 30.
"We should have someone in place by July 1," longtime Board of Education member Claudia Brasch said.
Whoever that person is, Morasco added, he or she will be someone who "you will see at the Fair Haven Firemen's Fair, the Harvest Fest," the Acme (now and then), other community gatherings, "and other things that are important in Fair Haven."
That person will be hands-on, have a penchant for popping in on school events and classrooms, be savvy with technology, curriculum innovations and emergency measures and have a heartfelt interest in the students' academic success.
Nonetheless, the right timing and person were mere components of the bigger picture of what Morasco described as unique to smaller districts, like Fair Haven, concerning such a search.
And having smaller districts is something that is and has been historically typical, right or wrong, about education in New Jersey, Morasco said.
"There are almost 600 school districts in New Jersey, unlike a lot of states where school districts are county-wide," Morasco said. "So, the majority are K-8, just like Fair Haven, just like Rumson. And they typically send to a regional high school. You've got the Middletowns. You've got the Hazlets, where there's a consolidated K-12," but that's not the majority.
And, with the bigger, regionalized districts, he added, comes a less hands-on superintendent by default and more layers of administration, such as assistant superintendents and other administrative supervisors.
Fair Haven residents, for the most part, he said, have purposefully opted for a more quaint, hands-on top administrator who has more time to devote to one-on-one communication and "do a lot of things that in a larger district an assistant superintendent would do."
Regardless of history and the fact that discussing consolidation is not why Morasco was there, as he pointed out, the conversation still swayed toward the possibility, its pros and cons and the facts surrounding the idea. People wondered if it might be the right time to just start the discussion, especially if the district cannot find a viable candidate.
Though, Morasco assured all that he would find someone and the right someone, at that, who would plant and root him or herself in the Fair Haven district for the duration of at least eight to 10 years, for students' consistency sake and to dissuade a revolving door of administrators.
While the notion of condensing Rumson and Fair Haven's now three school districts, with five schools, into one or two, rather than the existing three between the two small towns, has been broached before, it is not something that will happen right now, regardless. It can't, Marasco said. "The state will force you" through lengthy analyses.
Even thinking along the consolidation lines would require a state-mandated investment of one to three years in feasibility studies, consensuses among boards and between communities and a public vote, Marasco and Brasch said.
"It's a big, big thing to tackle," Brasch said. "Everything has to be under the microscope when you do the feasibility study. It's just a big undertaking to make something like that happen ... There's also a cost analysis and question of whether or not we really would be coming out ahead .. It's something we'd have to have a discussion about."
And it's a conversation that two or all three of the boards of education between Rumson and Fair Haven would have to have. "It's not going to happen overnight," Morasco said. "That's for sure. The boards would have to meet first, then the superintendents ... to see if they want to do it. Then there would be a mass survey of every single taxpayer of the community ... the state would require a feasibility study of curriculum offerings and finances and the community's willingness."
And, be careful what you wish for if you think it would mean a conservative move and lower taxes, Brasch cautioned. "Rumson's ratables are higher than ours, so would taxes go up because we'd have to compensate? ... It's not just apples and oranges," she said.
While Morasco conceded that there is a way to consolidate without regard for ratables, still, in the end, not everyone is guaranteed a win with such a plan.
"Someone will end up being perceived as the loser in the situation," he said, pointing out that it may not reap the savings people think and could compromise hands-on quality in small town schools administrators for which some are happy to pay.
"Conversations about this have been percolating since the 1970s," former board member Katie Frissora said.
Other things to consider, Morasco said, may be: What if administrative costs don't go down but up by adding a new layer to compensate? Fair Haven has a much lower per pupil cost than a larger district, such as Middletown. That, Morasco said, is because more often than not, the larger the district, the more powerful the teachers' union and the higher the salaries, driving per pupil costs up.
The most recent per-pupil cost recorded by the state for Fair Haven was $11,972 in 2010, with the state average at $12,681 for comparable districts. Middletown's was $12,665 for the same year, but with a state average of $13,833 for similar districts.
Cronin's salary, according to state records, is $150,075. Rumson Superintendent Maryrose Caulfield Sloan's salary is $145,000, according to Rumson school records. And Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School Superintendent Peter Righi is listed as having a salary of $201,688.
Middletown Township Schools Superintendent Bill George was hired last year at a salary of $187,000.
Middletown has 17 schools. Fair Haven and Rumson together have five, considerably fewer; but, as Marasco pointed out, Middletown also has more administrators. Rumson and Fair Haven schools do not have assistant superintendents.