Tepid Support as Sweeney Renews Pitch for Shared Services

John Mooney | February 7, 2012 | Education
Bill creating voluntary county hubs for education programs clears Senate committee

New Jersey’s difficulty in consolidating and regionalizing school districts is well-known, but even a plan to just share services is proving easier said than done.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has called expanded shared services by local schools and municipalities one of his legislative priorities for the year, saying it help would bring down or at least stabilize property taxes.

With schools the bulk of the local tax bill, Sweeney has pressed a year-old bill that would allow the state to appoint in each county an organization such as an education services commission or special service district to serve as a hub for sharing local school resources like transportation, nursing and special education programs.

Under the proposal, districts would have the option to participate in the county-wide programs but would not be required to do so.

While the bill progressed yesterday and was released by the Senate education committee, the debate before the committee over several of its conditions reflected how even a voluntary program hardly draws universal support.

Much of yesterday’s resistance came from private organizations that maintained they would be squeezed out of providing special education services to schools. They argued that the county programs are no cheaper than theirs, and will take decisions out of the hands of families and districts.

“If this becomes law, it will shift from a child-centered process … to a process where the vehicle is a large regional system that will control the decisions,” said Barbara DeMarco, lobbyist for the private providers.

Others said it would provide a “near-monopoly” for the county programs, which already have grown notably in the past decade. There are now 20 educational services commissions and eight special service districts.

But it wasn’t just private providers voicing concerns, as the state’s dominant teachers union also expressed reservations that the voluntary nature of the agreements may not be so voluntary after all.

Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association, said the state’s county offices already have significant powers over local budgets and could use that as a lever to force districts into the agreements. “And there is no escape clause if the agreement doesn’t work out,” she said.

“These decisions are too often made on a strictly fiscal basis, and we would like to see some language that educational needs are also being addressed,” Schnitzer said.

Sweeney’s bill has faced these questions before, and in a version filed last year, the measure was passed by the Senate but failed to gain Assembly support before the close of the session.

Sweeney and the bill’s supporters said yesterday they hope the new version will be able to assuage concerns and help lead to long-term cost savings. The measure was released by the committee with three Democrats in support, and two Republican members abstaining.

“Since school funding makes up the largest portion of our property tax bills, the need for more efficiency throughout the education system becomes all the more obvious,” Sweeney said in a statement.

“By creating efficiencies through shared services in education, we can ensure essential services are being provided while giving taxpayers a much-needed break.”