According to New Jersey Newsroom, the Christie Administration wants to encourage school districts to merge or at least agree to have one set of administrators once it eliminates “obstacles.”
Let’s count’em: addiction to home rule, the process by which any one school district in a proposed merger can squelch the whole deal (and there’ll always be one, because some district’s residents will see a uptick in their property tax bills unless the State kicks something in), the expense of feasibility studies, inertia.
We’ve also got 566 municipalities which could do with a little merging themselves. The Star-Ledger Editorial Board reports today on the plight of Mendham Township which is “suffocating under the costs of its police department.” Mendham Borough turned down a merger proposition six years ago so now the Township is courting Randolph. The 31,000 residents in combined Mendham Township and Randolph pay $9.3 million for 52 police officers. (Huh? $1.78 million per officer? Seems like a lot. Guess they’re counting benefits and overhead.) Dreams the Ledger, “Maybe broke and broken taxpayers have reached their tipping point. Maybe they’re willing to consider radical changes they have rejected for years. And maybe courageous leaders, at the local and county levels, finally will emerge.”
Worth noting is John Bury’s work at the Ledger. He’s been computing the money that disappears into county coffers. His example: Union County, which has $22 million in surplus right now. According to Bury, they say they’ll use $19 million of it but they’re cooking their books.
It’s as if NJ set out to design the most expensive governance possible. Divide up everyone into tiny pieces, both municipalities and school districts genuflecting to that desideratum, local control. Then place an exorbitantly profligate layer over the jigsaw pieces and call it County Government. For school districts, this means that in addition to local administrative teams, there’s a county office which supports Executive County Superintendents (a political appointment), County Business Administrators, County Special Services Directors. These people, of course, report to magnifications of themselves at the State level.
There may have been some logic-after-the-fact to this structure when in 2007 the NJ DOE produced its Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures, the scourge of local districts due to their quintessential inefficiency. Now that’s on hold (all praise common sense). What if we eliminated the county level of education governance? How much money would we save? Would any accountability be lost? Just asking.