Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine has an answer to our question on why Corzine would eliminate non-operating districts five months before the gubernatorial election:
No sense? Well, the Corzine plan calls for consolidating all of the small school districts in the state into larger districts by next year. And it also calls for the salaries in the small districts to rise to the level of the larger districts.
So that makes perfect sense – if you’re a governor looking for the teachers union vote in the November election
Mulshine’s logic is that the NJEA would support elimination of non-ops because then salaries will go up for some teachers. Not true: there are no separate bargaining agreements for non-ops. And his argument that Corzine’s strategy in consolidating “all smaller districts into larger districts” is to secure the powerful NJEA endorsement? A tad alarmist and not true either because district consolidation is subject to voter approval. If an Executive County Superintendent proposes a consolidation of, say, five districts, all it takes is a “no” vote from one small district to squash the whole deal. It is true, however, that if consolidation went through, then the salary schedule of the largest district would prevail, and teachers in larger districts tend to have higher salaries.
The rest of Mulshine’s piece tinkers with some potentially heavy ethical issues about school funding in New Jersey. If you peel away the curmudgeonly rhetoric, he asks an important question: does each N.J. taxpayer bear responsibility for our whole public education system, or does each N.J. taxpayer bear responsibility for public education only in his or her township? Mulshine discusses Rocky Hill School District in Somerset County, comprising 300 households, a school board, no school buildings or full-time employees and a sending relationship with Montgomery Public Schools. In other words, Rocky Hill is a non-operating school district that just got eliminated. Now Rocky Hill taxpayers may be taxed on ratables instead of number of kids, so they are suddenly no longer only responsible for their own kids, but for a larger piece of N.J.
Mulshine, a home-rule diehard, fulminates, “The real question here is not what’s saved but what’s lost. And that’s local control.”
But that’s not the whole story. What’s also lost is Rocky Hill’s (and Loch Arbour’s, and all non-ops’, for that matter) ability to deflect responsibility for any kids but their own. And that’s the problem with non-operating districts. The funding formula has been on a per pupil basis, which serves to isolate that township from Statewide educational responsibility. It’s a microcosm of our school funding dilemma and the D.O.E.’s response during Corzine’s tenure. Should Short Hills or Montgomery or Franklin Lakes have the right to offer an essentially different public educational experience to their children than Trenton and Newark and Camden? In the past, the answer has been “yes.” The D.O.E.’s energy has been focused on turning that “yes” into a “no” through adequacy formulas, standardized graduation requirements, and accountability regulations.
Corzine’s timing is odd in his elimination of the non-ops, but his logic and sentiment are valid. School reform in New Jersey (and everywhere else) won’t happen unless we all acknowledge some responsibility for the educational achievement of all kids, regardless of township borders.