When talking about school consolidation in N.J., lets talk money

On Wednesday, Education Law Center (ELC), which represents students who live in New Jersey’s poorest cities, put out a press release condemning Gov. Christie’s proposed changes to our school funding formula.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Recently, Education Law Center (ELC), which represents students who live in New Jersey’s poorest cities, put out a press release condemning Gov. Christie’s proposed changes to our school funding formula.

ELC used an analysis from the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) to show that if the formula was fully funded then NJ would spend $8.3 billion in 2013 for pre-k – 12th- grade public education. However, under Gov. Christie’s proposal we’ll only spend $7.8 billion.

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Whether or not you share ELC’s dismay at Gov. Christie’s miserliness, it’s worthwhile considering the primary cause of NJ’s sky-high education costs: our addiction to local control and our disdain for school district consolidation. New Jersey’s 591 school districts (and 566 municipalities) make us a model of inefficiency. Our lust for home rule renders any concessions to economic reality unpalatable, at least to the tens of thousands of politicians (yes, including school board members) whose egos are quenched by this quintessential Jersey fever.

It’s not for lack of trying. As recently as 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine created Executive County Superintendents, one for each of our 21 counties, and gave them an explicit mandate to produce consolidation plans. After about a year, everyone realized that combining districts would result in variations in local taxes, a deal-breaker. Also, union rules mandate that, among the hypothetically merged districts, the highest salaries would prevail, raising many to-be-consolidated districts’ payroll costs.

Money is only one of the compelling reasons to attempt to temper our love of local control and the resulting fragmentation of our school infrastructure. But let’s talk about money.

Cape May County, our southernmost county, has a total public school enrollment of about 13,000 children, and they are divided up into 17 school districts. Those districts include West Cape May Borough School District, home to one elementary school of 41 students with an annual cost per pupil for 2010 of $24,750. Wildcrest Borough Public Schools, seven miles away, has one elementary school of 297 kids and an annual cost per pupil of $20,234. The district of North Wildwood City, 2.8 miles from Wildcrest, has an enrollment of 317 kids and costs $23,722 a kid per year. Thirteen miles from North Wildwood is Sea Isle City School District, with 53 kids and an annual cost per pupil of about $30K per year.

Easy case for consolidation, right? Maybe not.

In 2008 Sea Isle City made a heartfelt attempt to merge with Ocean City School District, but Ocean City gave the proposed consolidation a thumbs-down because it would have to employ all tenured teachers from Sea Isle, a financially implausible scenario. The outcome is that we still have 17 school districts in Cape May County.

Whether you believe that we spend too much on schools or you believe (like ELC) that we don’t spend enough, there’s no escaping the fiscal inefficiencies of maintaining 591 school districts. Some people have suggested that we consolidate into 21 county-wide districts, as Maryland has done successfully. Others have called for more modest regional consolidations, pointing to other non-fiscal benefits, like decreasing our ethnically and economically segregated school system.

Right now, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a stomach for the transient disruptions and organizational restructuring that would accompany school system liposuction. New Jerseyans love to complain about property taxes, but there won’t be much relief until we are able to withstand the seductive allure of local control.

Sometimes you don’t get what you pay for.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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