It was nearly 20 years ago that I called for a nonbinding referendum that would allow the state to force some of its smaller school districts to merge. That vote never took place, and the state is still home to more than 600 school districts. I am pleased to see, however, that recently there has been some movement toward consolidation in a few pockets throughout New Jersey.
The state did ultimately direct county school superintendents to develop a plan to eliminate smaller school districts that do not offer grades pre-K or K-12; recommendations were due by March 2010. More than 85 percent of voters in West Amwell, Stockton, and Lambertville cast ballots to disband their small school districts and create a unified South Hunterdon school district, which occurred July 1 of this year. And in Hunterdon County, where per-pupil costs average $17,651, the county freeholders are offering to match the cost for school consolidation studies.
Despite these positive steps, a lot of work remains to be done to improve the small, inefficient school districts in the state. State auditors released a report this summer recommending the state Department of Education push for consolidation. The report notes there are 278 school districts in New Jersey servicing students in only grades K-6 or K-8, yet with total administrative costs of $270 million. Of that number, 144 are school districts with just one school, costing taxpayers $63.5 million. Auditors discovered even more potentially wasteful spending, including the fact that 90 of these single-school districts employed a schools superintendent and/or a full-time principal with combined salaries of $13.4 million, while 70 of these mini-districts also spent $5.3 million combined for school business administrations. Moreover, it was noted that 18 school districts with just a single K-6 or K-8 school had both a full-time superintendent and full-time principal, each earning an average of $121,000 in fiscal year 2013.
New Jersey is ready for a serious discussion. The Hunterdon freeholders point to a 2011 poll by Kean University, showing that 63 percent of likely voters favored “a decrease in property taxes, (if it meant) the merger of (their) town’s schools with schools in neighboring towns in (their) home county.”
When I had the privilege of serving as governor, I convened an advisory panel, which concluded in 1998 that regionalization would improve educational opportunity “by improving efficiency and by making better use of facilities and professional resources available.” The panel was cautious to expect enormous tax savings, but did say it was “realistic” to expect savings that could be reinvested in the district for enhanced educational programs. And let’s not forget that schools are funded through property taxes levied by municipalities, so consolidation helps local mayors and councils both by saving money and by preventing their voters from getting angrier about high property taxes.
I recognize that the people of New Jersey treasure the high degree of local control they exercise over their neighborhood schools — regionalization won’t work if the people of New Jersey don’t want it. The goal is not to end the cherished practice of neighborhood schools and local control; rather, it is to foster a school system that delivers a high-quality education to the student, while being more responsible to the weary taxpayer. South Hunterdon has successfully made the connection between sacrosanct home rule and property taxes, and has found ways that money can be saved without jeopardizing the level of service residents receive.
As a New Jersey taxpayer and a champion of our state’s public schools, I am pleased to see that some school districts are willing to give up some degree of local control to address school spending. This openness towards consolidation presents a golden opportunity to reassess the individual strengths of school districts and determine how they can all be leveraged to better serve the children of our state.
Christine Todd Whitman was elected governor of New Jersey in 1993 and served in the post until 2000, when President George W. Bush asked her to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She is the president of The Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues.
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