Wednesday, June 16, 2010

To Merge Or Not To Merge

In recent weeks, there's a topic that has been broached by sources which don't usually agree on much. That topic is the unusually high number of school districts in New Jersey and the effect that fragmentation has on the State's property taxes. By one count, the State has 566 towns and 588 school districts.

Tuesday's Wall Street Journal ran a front page story about the different ways school districts across the country are managing budget shortfalls. The article focuses on Downe Township, New Jersey. Downe Township has a school district for students from preschool through eighth grade. There are 236 students in the district. For high school, the students travel to nearby towns.

This year's budget cuts will hit certain students the hardest -- kids who are not eligible for special education but still need extra help to keep up. Downe Township had been running a very successful remedial program after school, which will have to be cut. Also being cut are basic skills classes.

In its report which recommends against Cap 2.5, the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities highlights the high number of New Jersey school districts as a significant contributor to the State's high property taxes. CBPP finds that New Jersey's small school districts suffer from duplication of services and administrative structures, and weak bargaining power with unions and health care providers. CBPP also cites the high cost of sending special needs students out of district as a significant factor contributing to high property taxes, a situation which might be improved if districts combined their special education programs, if they do not combine outright. Interestingly, the CPBB finds that teacher salaries are not the cause of high property taxes; state policies and inefficiencies are the culprits.

And in a recent address in Perth Amboy, Governor Christie noted that Cap 2.5 might encourage smaller school districts to combine. When these inefficient school districts no longer have the option of raising property taxes, reasons the Governor, the districts may finally choose to share administrative, superintendent and business services.

The advantages of merging small New Jersey school districts may be one of the few ideas that has supporters on the right and on the left. That being said, the idea was so soundly trounced when Governor Corzine floated it that no one is willing to shout it from the rooftops. Yet.

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