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Fine Print: Senate Bill 2261

Proposed legislation would meld New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts into 21 county-administered ones.

Synopsis: Establishes governance structure for county administrative school districts.

Sponsors: Senators Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Joseph Kyrrilos, Jr. (R-Monmouth).

What it means: Introduced in the last week, the bill is another try at what many have tried before, consolidating New Jersey’s nearly 600 local school districts into 21 county-administered districts. This time, the local schools would still exist under advisory school boards, and the sponsors said not one student would be forced to change schools. But if approved in county-wide referendum, all administrative functions would come out of the county offices, run by governor-appointed administrators and freehold-appointed school boards.

Key line: “Upon the establishment of a county administrative school district, the position of district superintendent of schools, together with any other local district-level administrative or supervisory personnel positions, shall be abolished.”

What makes this proposal any different? A few factors make the timing ripe, leading with Gov. Chris Christie and a school reform agenda that is clearly focused on ways to reduce school costs. The governor has already moved to put new county-wide controls on contracts for administrators and teachers. And the economy will surely help his chances. Sen. Smith, one of chief sponsors, said this week: "It has the best chance ever of happening in this environment. Look at what's happened with school aid. They have just lost $800 million.''

What real difference would it make? The cost savings of county-run districts has been debated for decades, with varying estimates to the actual dollars on the line. Currently, school administrative make up for about 10 percent of the overall budgets, so some consolidation could save a chunk of that. Smith put the amount at roughly 5 percent to 6 percent. "You're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating board attorneys, superintendents, assistant superintendents, curriculum coordinators, purchasing departments, etc. and etc. . . It's not a radical idea; it is being done in 14 other states. This streamlines the delivery of educational services without firing a single teacher or principal.''

Will it really happen? All bets are off with the new administration and state budget crisis that cries out for bold changes, not just in education but other pressing needs in transportation, the environment, and pensions. But even if not a radical idea, as Smith claims, New Jersey has held tight to home rule for a very, very long time. It won’t go away without a fight, and even if this bill ever passes, it will surely see lots of changes along the way.

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