Courage to Connect NJ Applauds State Audit Calling for More School District Consolidations

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Urges New Jersey Department of Education to Conduct Feasibility Studies on 104 Recommended Mergers

It was nearly 20 years ago that former Gov. Christie Whitman called for a non-binding referendum that would allow the state to force some of the state’s smaller school districts to merge.

That vote never took place, and the state is still home to more than 600 school districts. But the state did direct executive county schools superintendents to develop a plan to eliminate smaller school districts that do not offer grades pre-K or K-12. Recommendations were submitted by March 2010.

“Consolidation makes sense because it saves everyone money,” said Whitman, for this press release. “And let’s not forget that property taxes are levied by municipalities, so it helps local mayors and councils because it saves them money and keeps their voters from getting angry about high property taxes.”

State auditors are now targeting school district administration costs and recommending the state Department of Education push for school district consolidation. Under New Jersey statute, each county schools superintendent was required to make recommendations to the state education commissioner about how it could form or expand regional school districts, eliminating those districts that only provide education to limited grade levels, such as grades K-6.

In March 2010, the county schools superintendents submitted reports that called for eliminating up to 140 school districts. But none of the feasibility studies were completed because no funding was budgeted for the effort.

“This is just another example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to taxpayer money in New Jersey,” said Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that assists residents and local government leaders through the consolidation or regionalization process. “Implementing K-12 unified school districts would have resulted in the savings of millions of dollars a year – savings that taxpayers would be seeing by now.”

The report notes there are 278 school districts in New Jersey servicing students in grades K-6 or K-8 with total administrative costs of $270 million. Of that number, 144 are school districts with just one school, costing taxpayers $63.5 million.

According to the July 22 audit, it was discovered that there may even be more potentially wasteful spending, Genovese noted, adding 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.

The auditors also noted 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 2013.

Genovese said her organization is working with school board members in communities around the state who are examining the steps involved in school district regionalization. Courage to Connect New Jersey worked last year with school board members in South Hunterdon on the ballot initiative to dissolve four districts and create one Pre-K-12 regional district. More than 85 percent of the electorate in the four districts voted for the regionalization.

“South Hunterdon was a strong first step,” Genovese said. “Now, the state Department of Education must move forward with implementing these feasibility studies to examine how to maximize resources, enhance public education and build a more robust curriculum while being more responsible to taxpayers.”

Whitman said that South Hunterdon residents are making the connection between sacrosanct home rule and property taxes, and finding ways money can be saved without jeopardizing the level of service residents receive.

“Every school district has to maintain a full administration including superintendents, and that’s where property taxes are spent,” Whitman said. “If there aren’t too many students in the individual districts, the newly combined district won’t be overburdened.”

Whitman said the challenge involving school consolidation is that parents are often happy with the school system their children attend and are concerned about the potential for increased class sizes.

“But you can increase or decrease class size by a few and studies have shown it won’t make a difference in the quality of education children receive,” the former governor said. “Voters also aren’t making the connection – they may be complaining about high property taxes when they are paying for the school district bureaucracies they require.”

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Jonathan Jaffe
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