Should some N.J. school districts merge? The state is offering money to find out.

Published: Jan. 23, 2022

New Jersey has about 600 public school districts — more than the total number of municipalities in the state.

By comparison, Florida has 74 school districts, Maryland has 24 and Nevada has 18.

That’s because those states have mostly county-wide school systems, while New Jersey has a long tradition of allowing each of its hundreds of towns, boroughs, cities, townships and villages decide how to run its own schools.

But does New Jersey have more school districts than it needs?

A new law is offering school districts money to explore the idea of merging with their neighbors. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill, S3488, Tuesday that will give districts incentives to study consolidation — including county-wide and regional school districts.

“New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country and more than half of that goes to fund schools. We are one of the top states in school spending per pupil,” said Assemblyman Ron Dancer, R-Ocean, one of the sponsors of the legislation. “Taxpayers need relief, and this may be one way to deliver that relief.”

The law creates a new program in the state Department of Community Affairs that will use state funds to give school districts money to hire consultants to do consolidation studies. The studies would explore how districts could merge and how much a plan would cost or save taxpayers.

Under the new law, the state will pay interested school districts for half of the cost of the study, then give the districts the remainder of the money after the study is accepted by the department.

School districts that apply for the grants are not obliged to go through with a merger, only to study it.

At least one county is already considering a large-scale merger. In 2020, the Salem County freeholder board used another state grant to help pay for a $143,000 study by a Morristown law firm to consider combining the county’s 14 school districts.

Two of Salem County’s school districts had previously combined. The Elmer school district was absorbed by Pittsgrove in 2017, adding Elmer’s 240 students to Pittsgrove’s 1,600 students after years of talks, votes and approvals by state and local officials.

Some Salem and state officials said they were open to considering a county-wide consolidation plan.

“Salem is the smallest county in the state. It’s a logical starting point to at least study and look at this,” then-state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, whose legislative district included Salem County, said when the county commissioned the study.

He also said Sussex and Hunterdon counties, relatively large counties with low populations, were also good candidates for possible school regionalization.

Sweeney, who was recently voted out of office, was one the sponsors of the bill creating the new grant program for other school districts to study ways to merge and consolidate. He had been a longtime proponent of regionalizing schools, including smaller districts that operate only K-5 or K-8 schools and already send their students to regional high schools.

Critics say the overabundance of school districts in New Jersey — which all have their own superintendents, administrative staff, contracts and curriculum — drives up operating budgets and contributes to some of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation. Most of that money comes from local school taxes, which contribute to New Jersey’s high property taxes.

In 2020, New Jerseyans paid an average of about $4,798 per homeowner in school taxes or a total of $16 billion statewide. The wealthiest communities paid the highest school taxes.

Mountain Lakes in Morris County had the highest average school taxes in the state in 2020, about $15,033 per homeowner. That made up the majority of the average $21,625 tax bill in the borough.

Though New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, having hundreds of school districts may also help create racially segregated schools, critics say. Because students usually stay within their municipal borders for their entire K-12 education, they may go to mostly white or mostly Black or Hispanic elementary, middle and high schools, depending on where they live.

Supporters of New Jersey’s current school districts say the local control has helped keep educators focused on the needs of local students and created one of the highest ranked school systems in the nation. They also say school districts with an intensely local focus create a better sense of community and often allow students to go to small neighborhood schools close to home.

Several districts have regionalized or begun talking about mergers in recent years. In 2014, four school districts in Hunterdon County — the Stockton, West Amwell, Lambertville and South Hunterdon Regional High School districts — combined into one K-12 district after voters approved the creation of the South Hunterdon Regional School District.

Residents in four Ocean County districts are also considering further regionalizing their schools. The Pinelands Regional School District — which already includes middle and high school students from Little Egg Harbor, Tuckerton, Eagleswood and Bass River — released a feasibility study last fall considering whether to completely merge all the districts into a single pre-K-12 system.

The consultant’s study concluded creating the regional school district could save the school districts $2.37 million annually, but residents in the four municipalities would have to vote to approve the plan.

New Jersey also has many non-operating school districts, which don’t have any of their own schools but exist only to send their students to other school districts.

It is unclear if other school districts will take the state up on its new grant program to study whether to merge or consolidate with neighboring districts.

The new law says any studies looking into merging school districts must look at whether students would be segregated in the proposed consolidated district by race, family income, disabilities and/or their ability to speak English. Any merger idea would be scrapped if the study shows students would be even more segregated in a consolidated district.

Districts would also have to abandon plans to combine if the consultants find if it would cost taxpayers more money or create inefficiencies, under the law.

“Although we won’t know the exact savings until the studies are complete, we can see from other states that regional school districts do offer a savings to taxpayers,” said Dancer, one of the sponsors of the bill. “There are also educational benefits, such as curriculum coordination and more learning opportunities than may be currently possible in small districts with declining enrollment.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-24 04:32:18 -0800