Some Q & AOctober 31, 2008
So Sue Me…November 3, 2008
Here are two vignettes from the NJSBA convention. The first one: it’s Tuesday afternoon, and the Atlantic City Convention Center is way below capacity: school board members are still arriving and the exhibition hall doesn’t even open till Wednesday morning. But one meeting hall is overflowing with people and resentment, specifically “Getting Closer to Core Requirements,” which is advertised as a discussion on the new regulations attached to the School District Accountability Acts and the potential consolidation of school board districts.
John Donahue, Executive Director of New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, attacks the Department of Education for going “beyond law” in writing regulations that diminish the authority of local districts through the creation of the new office of Executive County Superintendent (ECS). The ECS has immense authority: to mandate consolidation, to veto budget items, to push shared services. The audience’s temperature? Mercury closing in on rampant indignation. Donahue argues against “the perception that 600 (districts) are too many,” and claims that the county offices are “undermanned.” The likelihood that the DOE will figure out how to implement the new regulations? “I give the Alamo a better chance.”
The audience buzzes with questions about the impact on state aid, contract negotiations, the rights of taxpayers in to-be-eliminated districts. Donahue counsels, “if you’re going to consolidate, don’t do it to save money.” And, later, “This is not about education. This is about taxes.”
Let’s move on to our second vignette. It’s Wednesday morning and the Atlantic City Convention Center is hopping. Actually, it’s hopping mad at “Everything You Wanted to Know About Consolidation/Regionalization, But were Afraid to Ask.” Gwen Thornton, a rep from NJSBA, gives a more measured estimation of consolidation, conceding that while “there’s no research that consolidation saves money,” there are “potential benefits for students and also lowered tax rates.”
Michael Kaelber, the Director of Legal and Policy Services for NJSBA, walks the packed room through the “very fragile process” of voluntary regionalization. First, the districts have to pay for a feasibility study that represents all stakeholders, then each board must pass a resolution, and then make a recommendation to the ECS. If the Great and Powerful ECS approves, then there must be a special election held the last Tuesday in September, and voters in each constituent district must approve the consolidation.
And how would the districts divvy up costs? Says Kaelber, “when you shuffle the deck, typically there are winners and losers in school tax costs.” One example: what if two districts merged and there were an excess of tenured teachers? Too bad – the receiving district MUST take the teachers from the smaller district, regardless of need. In fact this deck is so stacked against consolidation in large part because such merging requires “much political will and capital.”
Where’s the benefit, then, in consolidation? According to everyone but Corzine and the DOE, we won’t save taxes, increase efficiency, or improve education. On the other hand, you’re talking to the people whose job security and/or elected office is bound up in New Jersey’s massive educational inefficiency.
Perhaps the problem is not just the schools. Perhaps we can only achieve efficiencies (and better education for our kids) through consolidation at a municipal level. Why is the target drawn on the backsides of school districts and not, say, on the buttocks of towns? I guess we’re at the wrong convention.