With 590 school districts in New Jersey, more than 200 in the state are involved in a sending-receiving relationship with another district, including every school district in Cape May County.
While shared services are ubiquitous throughout the county, which has been losing student population for several years, the idea of consolidation has never caught on.
Proponents say countywide consolidation could bring equity to school funding and curriculum, while opponents believe it will drive up taxes for more wealthy communities and take away home rule.
“New Jersey has this historic attachment to home rule,” said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. “It’s difficult. The negotiations or the proposals to consolidate almost always leave some group of people feeling like they’re sacrificing something for a benefit they’re not sure they’re going to see.”
The question of more consolidation isn’t on the table right now in the state’s peninsula, but over the summer, one North Jersey town made the extraordinary proposal to save taxpayers money.
Lower Cape May Regional School District Superintendent Chris Kobik, who described himself as “not necessarily a person who is simply happy with the status quo,” said while he isn’t against small community schools, he believes in having the consolidation conversation.
The state of New Jersey recognizes four ways of combining school districts: regionalization, consolidation, merger and a sending-receiving relationship.
Weingart said these types of agreements can reduce the amount of administrative layers, ultimately saving money.
“Administrative costs and administrative staff are essential, but it’s a question of the number of them and the efficiency of it,” he said.
Cape May County is home to only four public high schools. It also has three of the state’s 16 nonoperating districts, which send their students to neighboring districts through tuition agreements.
Shared-service agreements are usually a more attainable goal than consolidation or regionalization, Weingart said.
“They both save some money and set up some standardization of practices across a larger region. But consolidation is a little like congressional districts or doctors, where people complain, but then say they want to keep theirs,” he said.
While there are many shared-service agreements, there are far less regional school districts in the state. Of New Jersey’s 69 regional school districts, Lower Cape May Regional is the only one in Cape May, serving seventh- through 12th-grade students from Cape May, Lower Township, Cape May Point and West Cape May. Those towns all pay a regional school tax rate based on each town’s valuation, in addition to their local school tax rate.
These types of arrangements can sometimes lead to disproportionate funding from wealthier communities and disputes as in the case of Lower Cape May Regional five years ago where Cape May residents, who were being asked to pay the equivalent of $50,000 per student, tried to dissolve or pull out of the regional district through a referendum that ultimately failed.
Cape May County, with its 12,583 students, already does a lot to regionalize education, but countywide consolidation finds few supporters.
“I can’t see any incentive whatsoever for Avalon,” said Board of Education President Lynn Schwartz. Avalon is smallest school district in the state, at 43 students enrolled.
The borough has one of the highest tax bases and lowest school tax rates in the county, along with its neighbor Stone Harbor, with which it shares several school services through a tuition-based agreement.
Schwartz said taxpayers there don’t want their school taxes to increase in order to subsidize a countywide system where they would have very little say.
“We like the fact that we can make the decision for how our taxpayer money is spent,” she said.
Schwartz added that research has not always supported “the bigger the school the better.” That’s true: Studies have found that when school districts become too large, they experience diseconomies of scale.
However, school consolidation can improve access to quality education, studies have shown.
Kobik said larger school districts provide opportunities to leverage costs, share and cycle staff more easily, and provide for professional growth for educators. Regionalized or consolidated schools can improve educational programming by creating continuity of curriculum, access to technology and developing best practices, he said. They can also be reorganized to create magnet programs, Kobik said.
“If we really want stronger, healthier communities, looking at change in school structure and design as a means to advance a modern, rigorous, 21st Century design and program would need to be at the top of the list, as well,” he said.
Weingart said consolidation in New Jersey is never an easy process, using the municipal consolidation of Princeton Township and Princeton Boro as an example.
“That took four tries before it happened. As one person said, ‘It turned out to be easier to consolidate East and West Germany,” he said.
Kobik said that due to declining population, it’s important for communities in Cape May County to have the conversation but doesn’t see it likely happening without a funding crisis. However, he warned it shouldn’t be done just to save money.
“We should be mindful that it needs to be done in light of: How can we make sure our kids are best prepared to function in the world that we live in? I would certainly be part of that conversation,” he said.