Forced School consolidation is Off the Table

April 24, 2012

TRENTON — A statewide effort to force school districts to consolidate officially has been tabled, but at least one county is still moving ahead with a plan to trim back on local districts.

The consolidation plans had been authorized under an earlier state law and initially carried out under then Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration. But acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf acknowledged Monday they were on hold.

“A preliminary plan was generated. Essentially, (the task force) came back and said, this is what it would take to get it to the next level, and it involved a substantial infusion of funds,” Cerf told an Assembly committee. “It basically went nowhere.”

One lawmaker, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, wanted to know why the program was ignored. “So the law as adopted and signed, and it’s simply set aside?” he asked.

“Additional work needs to be done, and that was not done,” Cerf answered.

Under the Corzine administration, consolidation among smaller districts had been a highly publicized goal. In 2007, legislation stipulated that consolidation plans were to be submitted by executive county superintendents by March 2010.

Those executive county superintendents had their powers expanded so they could review local budgets and promote the sharing of services.

But the effort languished as local superintendents often resisted the move and parents argued about the value of their local districts. The amount of money spent on preparation following the 2007 legislation was not immediately available.

Michael Vrancik, who represents the New Jersey School Boards Association, said consolidation raised difficult issues. A state law requires teachers in a newly consolidated school district to get paid according to the higher of the contracts involved, which raised costs. There also remain problems about who would pay the debt on schools that had been constructed.

Joseph F. Passiment, Jr., interim executive county superintendent for Monmouth County, said in an interview he wasn’t in a hurry for consolidation plans to move forward.

“We’re taking a look at the educational process, teacher reforms, the new core curriculum content standards … the new regional achievement centers,” Passiment said, referring to the field-based centers that will work with low-performing schools and those with significant achievement gaps. “We have more pressing needs in education right now.”

But in Hunterdon County, however, state and local officials are working on consolidation anyway.

State education spokesman Justin Barra said that 12 districts in north Hunterdon County were conducting a feasibility study to see if they could share special education services.

Meanwhile, five districts in south Hunterdon County were considering a K-12 regionalization, Barra added.

Hunterdon County Freeholder Director Rob Walton said he and Raritan Township Committeeman John King, who is running for a seat of his own on the Board of Freeholders this year, are moving forward with their plans to urge local lawmakers to examine whether consolidation of educational services makes sense in the Garden State’s wealthiest county.