Superintendents aren’t going to advocate for eliminating their jobs. School business administrators aren’t going to advocate for eliminating their jobs. School boards are not going to want to just get rid of their power.
That’s Newton Township Mayor Wayne Levante acknowledging that his proposal to consolidate Sussex County’s 25 school districts has as much chance of gaining support as Brienne of Tarth slipping into Melania Trump’s stilettos. Those 25 districts, by the way, have a total enrollment of 21,000 students and so Levante, a teacher in Newark, did the math and found that this consolidation would save Sussex County taxpayers between $6 and $9 million dollars a year.
How? Some Sussex County data courtesy of the N.J. Department of Education: Andover Public Schools enrolls 405 students and employs a superintendent, two principals, and a business administrator. Fredon Public Schools enrolls 234 students.and employs a superintendent, who also serves as principal, an assistant principal, and a business administrator. Green Township enrolls 393 students and employs a superintendent, a principal, and a business administrator. Yes, that’s right: three business administrators and three superintendents for less than a thousand kids. And that’s just the low-hanging fruit.
Is this proposed merging of Sussex County districts a reasonable suggestion on Levante’s part? Of course, but we’ve played this game before. Four years ago Paul Tractenberg, founder of Education Law Center and Rutgers’ Professor of Law Emeritus Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor, suggested that we consolidate all the school districts in Essex County, where “you can drive from one end of it to the other in not more than thirty minutes.” His intent was to address the extreme segregation that plagues every one of our twenty-one counties: Essex is a particular exemplar in that within that small space it contains both needy Newark and silk-stocking Millburn.
Levante’s argument is fiscal. Trachtenberg’s argument is ethical, although money plays a part. He writes,
Finally, we could once and for all confront New Jersey’s particularly virulent form of home rule. Consolidation of school districts and municipalities is routinely referred to as “a political third rail.” For three-quarters of a century this attitude has disabled us from addressing the gross inefficiencies — fiscal, educational, social, and constitutional — of our crazy quilt of undersized and colossally expensive municipalities and school districts…As citizens and taxpayers, we excoriate politicians for our property taxes, by far the highest in the nation, but we cling with equal passion to our costly and dysfunctional governmental bodies.
Both the Mayor and the Professor acknowledge that the odds of superintendents and school board members willingly ceding control is nil. This resistance to consolidation — New Jersey’s particular dragon — isn’t based on what’s best for families and their children. It’s based on what’s best for power-grubbing adults. With all the rhetoric about fully funding New Jersey’s (flawed) school funding formula, isn’t is worthwhile to consider whether our “costly and dysfunctional” school district infrastructure can be rendered more inclusive, efficient, and equitable?
At the very least, this issue should be on the table. Levante put it there and for that he deserves praise.