Ask Away: Should NJ Move to Merge Local School Districts?

Proponents say the move will save money and improve education, but others bring up logistical obstacles.

By Erin Delmore
Correspondent

New Jersey has around 600 school districts and some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

That prompted one viewer to post this question on our Ask Away web page: “Should New Jersey move to merge local school districts to reduce administrative costs and broaden the tax base?”

It’s a question tackled by school officials in South Hunterdon: the first successful school consolidation in New Jersey in more than two decades. 

“Our district serves three communities: Stockton, West Amwell and Lambertville. The total population in those communities is about 9,000 or so and the total school population is probably well let’s see, about 300 from Lambertville about 450 from West Amwell and about 70 from Stockton. So, that brings us up to about a thousand or so total with in the district,” said South Hunterdon Regional School District Board of Education President Dan Seiter.

Before consolidation, there had been 32 board members in a school district that graduates only 45 to 60 students per year.

“It probably took us two to three years to get the feasibility study done, to get the referendum underway. Probably in about 2013 we finally got the ballot, the question onto the ballot, and from that point on, it was approved [to] go forward. All three communities approved it,” Seiter said.

Stockton, West Amwell and Lambertville have some of the smallest schools in the state and the communities are similar. Our experts said past school consolidation efforts have proved much trickier.

“One of the real stumbling blocks can often be property taxes because one community will have a higher tax rate than another and there will be winners and losers,'” said Lynne Strickland, partner at Schoolhouse Strategies. 

There was an attempt in 2007 to move New Jersey school districts toward unified K through 12 districts.

“Unfortunately under Gov. Christie, the law has just… he hasn’t done anything with it. So we’re now having a conversation about the next governor coming in, can we get this law started again? Get studies going, get work going, get some money puy into this, get some studies going, see whether we can start to incentivize these smaller districts to becoming K-12 districts,” said Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra.

So, should New Jersey move to merge local school districts to reduce administrative costs and broaden the tax base?

“The biggest reason to do this today isn’t so much costs or savings or even property tax relief, but the biggest reason to do what I’m talking about is to get the educational program aligned so that kids get a grade to grade educational opportunity from the day they’re in kindergarten all the way until the day they graduate high school,” Sciarra said.

“I would be fully supportive of the state making this an easier process for all school districts. Not only because it broadens the tax base and reduces the costs, builds efficiencies, but for us, and for many of the school districts, the primary benefit is education. These children have a better shot at a stronger education if there’s more consistency within the systems that they’re coming from,” Seiter said.

“There are also lots of factors that play into school consolidation. It’s not just putting kids in one general school system. It’s also teacher contracts. Some may be higher. Some may be lower. It may becurriculum differences. It may be class size differences one district to another. And all those things will emerge as the consolidation plans are developed,” Strickland said. 

You can ask your own question on our Ask Away website.

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