Politicians and the public generally agree that New Jersey's fractured school system contains too much administrative waste, too many districts and too many inequities. But that's where the consensus stops - because the ultimate solution to that pervasive waste and inequity is consolidation, which can be unpopular.
And so politicians have provided plenty of empty rhetoric and little true leadership on this issue.
The latest local flare-up over costs is coming from Ventnor and Brigantine, where some officials are renewing the push to sever their sending-district relationship with Atlantic City High School. The three Downbeach communities and Brigantine have long contended that per-pupil costs - now $20,630 - to send students to Atlantic City High School are too high.
We agree that the figure, arrived at by state formula, does seem high. But the proposed solution of creating a new regional high school or K-12 district that includes only Brigantine, Ventnor, Margate and Longport simply isn't going to happen. Ending a sending-receiving relationship is a tough legal battle in any case, but it is particularly difficult for Downbeach and Brigantine, since the move would lead to less racial balance in the high school.
And consider, as well, that while the per-pupil cost does sound high, overall school tax rates in Downbeach and Brigantine - which also fund their own K-8 districts - are still low by countywide standards. Fact is, Longport pays just 6 cents per $100 of assessed value for school taxes, or $600 on a home assessed at about $1 million. In Brigantine, the rate is 33 cents, and in Ventnor, the least affluent of the four resort towns, the rate is 65 cents.
In other areas of the state, property-rich shore communities with declining student populations have similarly considered ending their relationships with mainland schools in order to save money.
It's the wrong approach. The idea shouldn't be to further increase inequities or further balkanize the system. The idea should be to consolidate. And if there is ever to be a time to consider the politically unpopular issue of countywide consolidation, it may be now, when decreased state aid is forcing economies. A move to create a pilot project for a countywide system failed miserably several years ago - killed in part by furious opposition in Gloucester County, a likely candidate.
Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, both D-Somerset, Middlesex, have taken a step toward countywide consolidation. They recently introduced bills that would allow voters to consider whether to centralize school administration at the county level, eliminating local administrators and making local school boards advisory in nature. In 2006, according to the state auditor, it cost $553 million statewide for salary and benefits for school administrative personnel.
The devil, of course, is in the details - and many of the details of the plan have yet to be fully fleshed out. What it would not do, however, is create a countywide school tax rate that would more evenly spread the cost of educating children.
The education bureaucracy will oppose changes in the status quo, and parents and students fear change. That's why this issue will take leadership and commitment by elected officials.
Still, the idea of 21 countywide school districts makes sense. Educating students is a societal responsibility - and so it makes sense, as well, to spread the tax burden more broadly than it is now.