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One Last Question: The Candidates on District Consolidation

Home rule is still the order of the day, but both candidates understand the economic boost that would come with regionalization

kim guadagno
Kim Guadagno, Republican candidate for governor

As a co-sponsor of last night’s gubernatorial debate, NJ Spotlight won the chance to ask one question of candidates Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno.

NJ Spotlight went with school consolidation and regionalization, an issue that has long-dogged a state of more than 560 school districts, leading to arguments of gross inefficiencies and inequities.

NJ Spotlight has heard the same questions and frustrations from Garden State voters as well, as part of a news collaborative, Voting Block, that is exploring voter sentiments in this election year.

But home rule continues to win the day.

Still, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney, an education reporter in New Jersey for more than 20 years, asked the question from stage right of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last night.

“What specific steps, if any — and I stress specific steps — would you take as governor to address the state’s multitude of districts and promote consolidation and regionalization?”

The answers weren’t exactly on point, but they revealed the different approaches and priorities of each candidate.

Guadagno, the Republican candidate pressing a property-tax-cutting mantra, was the more forceful and slightly more specific. She said she would “demand” schools take steps to consolidate, albeit not saying how exactly she would do that. Guadagno also may have exaggerated the cost savings that she claimed would be in the “billions,” far more than most estimates, at least in the short term.

Murphy, the Democrat, spoke about the inequities the state’s disparate system has bred, and New Jersey’s standing as among the most racially segregated school systems in the nation. But he stopped well short of mandating regionalization and consolidation, and instead pointed to incentives for sharing services and even naming a “czar” to push the cause.

The following are lightly edited excerpts of their answers:

Guadagno

“The very first thing we have to do is address our property-tax problem, and we do that through our 5 percent (‘circuit breaker’) plan and reevaluating our school-funding plan. Those are two specifics.”

“The third thing we need to do is consolidate our K-6 districts with our Grades 7-8 districts, and where appropriate with our high school districts. The Gannett papers have estimated that could save a ton of administrative dollars, billions of dollars. These are two or three ways we could immediately address consolidation. You could either force it or do it by agreement, I’m sure we could save a lot of money.”

“I think we should demand that school districts do it, and not just school districts but any public services. Townships should consolidate, police departments, fire departments should consolidate, any time we can streamline government, we should do it and we should do it now.”

Murphy

“The reality is that we are the most or among the most segregated states in the nation. The reasons are many, but the two principal reasons are the underfunding of public education … and kicking the affordable housing can down the road through the courts for the past eight years.”

“With all due respect, getting those two policy areas in the right place would be a big way in getting at the segregated state we’re in. I think you can incent school districts and communities to share services. That absolutely should be done and will be done.”

“This is a big opportunity. You (Guadagno) have been there, I’m trying to get there. It’s a real opportunity. We actually put together a plan where we have shared services and potentially a shared districts czar, and we take those two areas and we fund it and execute it.”

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