The debate over consolidating public schools in New Jersey is almost as old as the public schools themselves, with skirmishes over the issue dating back to the 1890s. In a state of nearly 600 districts and more than 2,400 individual schools, the mantra has always been there must be a better — and more efficient — way to run them.
With Senate President Stephen Sweeney the latest high-level politician to promote the idea of consolidation, a consensus on how to do so — and how to achieve an outright mandate for it — may be as difficult to reach as ever.
But don’t rule mandate out, Sweeney said in a meeting with NJ Spotlight’s staff this week, saying he could support the state ordering districts to consolidate.
“We’re talking about legislation that would require it,” Sweeney said.
When asked specifically if he would support a merger even against a community’s will, the Senate President replied, “…if it makes sense [for a community], yes.”
It might take years
But Sweeney quickly added that before any of that happens, he wants a statewide discussion of the issue. He has set no timetable for even filing legislation, besides acknowledging that it will take multiple years and surely countless legislative hearings.
“Right now, we want to start with a dialogue,” he said. “There will be legislation, but we need to work through this.”
School consolidations are a central recommendation of the task force report released by Sweeney last week that makes more than 30 recommendations in all to help ease the state’s fiscal jam.
Along with restructuring public-employee pensions and selling off infrastructure, Sweeney said radical actions like statewide consolidations are required to ease the burden on taxpayers.
The report recommends that more than 200 districts now serving just elementary or middle schools would be merged into K-12 districts, saving what Sweeney said would be hundreds of millions of dollars in administrative and other duplicative costs. Taking it a step further, the report also recommends the state allow for two counties to create cross-county school districts on a pilot district.
No good estimate of potential savings
“We’re getting to a point where if we don’t do anything soon… ” Sweeney said of the fiscal crisis. “I’d argue we’re at that point now.”
In the interview this week, Sweeney — who was joined by state Sen. Paul Sarlo, chair of the Senate budget committee — didn’t put an estimate on the savings that consolidations would bring.
That in itself has been an elusive figure. The most-often cited study was completed back in 1993 by former Rutgers professor Ernest Reock, proposing a similar plan that would reduce the number of districts by half. It estimated such a move would save $32 million in administrative costs a year and $200 million overall. But little study been done since then, and even adjusted for inflation, Reock’s totals would be a small slice in the $40 billion annual costs for public education statewide.
Interestingly, Sweeney and Sarlo this week downplayed the financial gains as opposed to what they said would be instructional benefits as well. They claimed that too many districts fail to align their curricula and practices, leaving students shortchanged in their preparations for high school and college.
“It is not just the money,” Sweeney said. “It is worth it to improve our schools.”
Sarlo: It’s not all about the money
Added Sarlo, “We need to lead this discussion in different ways. Too many years in this debate we’ve led with the finance part, and moving little Johnny and Alice from their schools… We need to lead with the education piece.”
That may prove a tough selling point for such sweeping change, but Sweeney and his allies said they want to get away from the impression that consolidations will uproot students from their schools and bring forced busing.
And they know those who want to keep the decision-making for their schools local will place high hurdles in the way of consolidation. Former Gov. Jon Corzine pressed the cause a decade ago and prompted every county to develop feasibility studies for their districts. However, those plans were never completed or released.
But the Senate President said sentiments have changed as the financial strains have intensified, making the time right for such a shift.
“When you tell parents that they can have a product that is as good or better, and costing less,” Sweeney said, “that’s a good thing.”