Consolidation Deadline Looming

March 2010 is the presumptive date for Executive County Superintendents to file recommendations with the State DOE on consolidating non-K-12 school districts, according to marching orders from ex-Gov. Corzine. The Asbury Park Press handily reminds us of the deadline and urges Gov. Christie to keep up the momentum on consolidating our educational fragmention:

Having more than 600 school districts wastes precious tax dollars. Centralizing administration, purchasing, transportation and support services could save millions of dollars that could be put back into the classroom. Nearly every report and study on consolidation conducted by state policymakers over the last 40 years has concluded that the profusion of districts fails to provide the continuity, consistent program quality and economies of scale needed to operate an optimally efficient, effective educational system.

True enough. In fact, the job of Executive County Superintendent was reinvented in 2007 specifically to rassle ornery school districts into consolidation agreements. From 18A:

# No later than three years following the effective date of sections 42 to 58 of P.L.2007, c.63 (C.18A:7-11 et al.), recommend to the commissioner a school district consolidation plan to eliminate all districts, other than county-based districts and other than preschool or kindergarten through grade 12 districts in the county, through the establishment or enlargement of regional school districts

So, where are we? Lucille Davy successfully eliminated 25 non-operating school districts, i.e., those without buildings or students, but not without a fight. And that March deadline? Here’s an example from the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding Burlington County. There, the Executive County Superintendent Lester Richens says his report will not include any specific mergers but, instead, some “generic models” and examples of shared services. Huh? Explains Richens, there’s no money available to hire people to do expensive feasibility studies required for each merger. He doesn’t mention the other primary obstacle: statutes preclude any consolidation without a “yea” vote from each implicated district and in every consolidation some town’s school taxes will go up, mainly because the new district created through the mergers would be required to pay teachers and staff based on the biggest district’s salary guides. Bigger districts tend to offer higher salaries. Know anyone who’s ready to vote for higher taxes?

In other words, voluntary consolidation is a failed enterprise. The only way to make it work is to mandate it, and even Gov. Christie, bullish as he is on efficiencies, is not ready to tackle that particular Leviathan.

Where does that leave us? With 21 fully-staffed county offices without much of a mission. Other responsibilities of BOE county offices include overseeing Quality Single Accountability Continuum, the required oversight mechanism for each district every three years. It’s so cumbersome that it’s on hold for now. Another responsibility: ensuring that local districts adhere to the Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures. Wait: that’s on hold too because it turns out that the regs are, well, inefficient.

Here’s a little back-of-the-napkin math. We have 21 county offices which each employ an Executive County Superintendent. We can’t find salaries, but let’s low-ball it $160K (less than most district superintendents make in NJ). 21 times $160K is $3,336,000. Each office has anywhere from 9-14 employees, including a Business Administrator, a General Education Supervisor, and a Special Education Supervisor, plus assorted assistants and secretaries. For argument’s sake, let’s take the BA’s and the supervisors – 3 from each of the 21 county office is 63 – and pay them $125K. That’s $7,875,000. Let’s use some of the smaller offices as a model – we’re trying to be conservative – and say that each office employs 6 secretaries and assistants and pays them each $50,000. That’s $4,200,000. Now add on benefits packages for each of our 168 employees at, say, $18,000 each. There’s another $3,024,000. Total payroll and benefits for 21 county offices: $18,435,000 per year.

If the primary responsibility of the county office is to promote district consolidation (dead in the water) and oversee accountability (through regulations so flawed that they’ve been back-burnered), then one has to wonder whether this is the best use of $18 million of tax-payer funds. Do we need 21 executive county superintendents? Could we, say, manage with regional offices? At the very least, our school district overseers need a new job description.

What do you think?

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