What better advertisement for school district consolidation than the Pascack Valley area of Bergen County comprising four little towns, Montvale, Woodcliff Lake, Hillsdale, and River Vale? Right now, these four municipalities operate as four separate K-8 school districts with 1,050 kids in Montvale, 900 kids in Woodcliff Lakes, and about 1400 kids each in Hillsdale and River Vale. Each “school district” has a school board, a full-time superintendent, a business administrator, special services coordinator, etc. Then they merge all their high school students into a fifth district, the two-building Pascack Valley Regional High School District, also with its own school board, superintendent, business administrator. You get the picture.
This arrangement dates back to 1955, except for one little change made by the state in the ‘70’s: while each town used to pay for high school educational services on a per pupil basis, school taxes are now based on housing values.
In 2007 Montvale and Woodcliff commissioned a feasibility study to see what would happen if they withdrew from the two-building Pascack Valley High School District and formed a pre-K through 12th grade district together using one of the high school buildings. The Record reports today that the new district would save taxpayers of the two towns a cool $4 million per year. Key point:
According to the report, in the 2008-2009 academic year, Hillsdale paid $15,039 per high school student, Montvale $22,954, River Vale $17,741 and Woodcliff Lake $27,860.
So Montvale and Woodcliff get squeezed while Hillsdale and River Vale walk away with a bargain. (We’ll point out here that $15K – $17K per student is wildly high compared to the rest of the country, though in Pascack Valley it’s a steal.)
Officials in Hillsdale and River Vale are apoplectic and have sworn to fight any attempt to reconfigure the regional district.
Meanwhile, one has to wonder whether any town anywhere should be paying either $22K (Montvale’s cost) or $27K (Woodcliff Lake’s cost) per student for a public school education.
I suspect that the sentiments of the local officials and those of many residents are aligned, making consolidations that much harder to achieve.
We often see these political polls about how much voters hate property taxes. We are taught relatively early on that if there's a tax to hate, it's the property tax (even though there are some significant virtues to the property tax… like relative stability of revenues in economic downturn). I suspect that if we poll the question of consolidation in these districts, the distaste for consolidation may exceed the distaste for property taxes. Even if it didn't – evidence on the success of consolidations is convincing (polled opinions are only the opinions people are willing to express when asked. actions speak much louder)
In the big picture, this is a direct trade-off, especially concerning very small districts and maintaining comparable quality outcomes. Based on analysis of NJ data, the cost per pupil of achieving constant outcomes in a K-12 district of less than 800 students, or K-8 district of less than 300 students, is at least 20 to 30% higher than in a district with 2,000 or more pupils. Municipalities, officials and their residents who choose to hold out against consolidation and cover this additional cost margin with higher property taxes are making a choice to do so.
I agree, Bruce. The lure of home rule overwhelms any kind of fiscal efficiency. I don't know how we get past that.