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Consolidating county’s school districts would yield benefits beyond cost savings

Hunterdon Democrat, February 9, 2012New Jersey Future Op-Ed Button

By Tim Evans

Hunterdon County leaders are looking into the idea of consolidating the county’s more than two dozen school districts into a single, countywide district. Freeholder Director Rob Walton looked at 18 other counties nationwide with populations and land areas similar to Hunterdon’s and found that those with countywide school systems tended to spend less on public education than the ones with multiple school districts. He concludes that the potential for administrative cost savings makes the idea worth exploring.

A more local comparison might help drive the point home. Consider the Central Bucks School District in Bucks County, Pa. The district encompasses nine municipalities with a total population of 114,548.  It includes 15 elementary schools, five middle schools and three high schools—all operated by a single district with a single superintendent and administrative hierarchy.

Hunterdon County’s population of 128,349 is roughly similar to that of the Central Bucks School District.  But Hunterdon County’s 26 municipalities send their kids to a total of 30 different school districts—25 elementary-only districts, four regional high school districts and Phillipsburg High School (in Warren County), where Bloomsbury sends its high school students.

This generates a ratio of municipalities to school districts that doesn’t even manage 1:1. In contrast, Central Bucks, at a ratio of 9:1, demonstrates that a similar population can be served effectively by a single district. A single countywide district would still operate the same number of schools, and there would be no impact on the number of teachers. But the implications for reducing administrative expense are obvious.

But the benefits of more regionalized school districts don’t end at cutting bureaucracy and reducing administrative costs. New Jersey’s fragmented universe of school districts leads to a host of undesirable or counterproductive land-use decisions.  With so many single-municipality school districts, many municipalities are on their own to raise school revenues solely from the properties located within their borders. This means that when a new shopping mall or office park opens, the host municipality wins and all of its neighbors lose.

Increasing the number of municipalities served by a school district would go a long way toward reducing inter-municipal competition for taxable commercial property (the “ratables chase”).  When nine municipalities share a school district, as in Central Bucks, all taxable properties within these municipalities pay into the same pot of school money. It no longer makes as much difference which particular municipality secures the new mall; competition becomes less acute as the size of the units of competition increases.

Going to a countywide system means the unit of competition is the entire county. Land-use decisions can be based on what makes the most sense from a regional perspective, rather than on which of 30 atomized school districts is going to reap the fiscal benefits while its neighbors get nothing.

Reducing inter-municipal competition would also pay dividends in the housing market. If the costs of educating new schoolchildren were spread across the entire county’s tax base, municipalities would be much less resistant to family housing and the school costs that come with it. The housing market would be free to provide housing in a greater variety of types, sizes and price ranges, as opposed to today’s oversupply of big houses on big lots and undersupply of everything else. With fewer people priced out of New Jersey’s housing market altogether, perhaps the tide of out-migration to other states could be stemmed.

Even if Hunterdon isn’t ready to move to a single countywide district, there are intermediate steps that could still yield savings. The number of school districts could be sharply reduced simply by regionalizing districts in which the constituent municipalities are already engaging in some sort of sharing arrangement—either a regional high school or a fee-per-pupil sending agreement with a neighboring district. In Hunterdon County, this would mean dissolving the elementary-only districts into the regional high school districts they feed, resulting in four true regional school districts serving virtually the whole county. (Bloomsbury would join the Phillipsburg school district.) In fact, the municipalities that send their high school students to South Hunterdon Regional are already contemplating such a consolidation.

The Hunterdon County freeholders are to be commended for their willingness to consider regional solutions where they are appropriate. Should they adopt some form of school district consolidation, they would make the county a true pioneer from which the rest of the state can learn.

Tim Evans is director of research for New Jersey Future, where he is responsible for the original research and data analysis that support New Jersey Future’s policy development.  He holds a B.S. in mathematics from Ursinus College, an M.S. in statistics from the University of Virginia, and a master’s in city and regional planning (M.C.R.P.) from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Prior to joining New Jersey Future he worked as a mathematical statistician for the Bureau of the Census in Washington, D.C.

New Jersey Future is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering land-use policies that help revitalize cities and towns, protect natural lands and farms, provide more transportation choices beyond cars, expand access to safe and affordable neighborhoods and fuel a prosperous economy.

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