Last week’s landslide vote in southern Hunterdon County, where residents approved a plan to combine four small school districts into one, is an encouraging step toward sanity in government-heavy New Jersey. The first domino of many.
Maybe that’s too optimistic. Although the new K-12 district is the state’s first multiple-district merger in nearly 20 years, there are currently more campaigns to disband regional school districts — breaking them up into smaller, more expensive pieces — than there are to merge districts. The key to cutting property taxes is cutting costs. Property taxes fund schools, towns and counties. The simplest way to spend less on government is to actually have less government. That’s where consolidation comes in. On Tuesday, residents of Stockton, Lambertville and West Amwell voted overwhelmingly — 86 percent in favor — to dissolve their three elementary-only districts, plus the regional high school district, and create a combined K-12, starting in 2014. One school board and superintendent instead of four. Consolidated buying and bill-paying. One-fourth the budgets, audits and state reports. There are educational wins, too: It might not make sense for each primary school to have its own teacher in specialized areas, such as sports or music, but a larger district can hire one for all three. As smart as consolidation seems, it’s been slow to gain traction. The Princetons merged this year after 50 years of trying. Fanwood and Scotch Plains already share a school district, and now are studying a municipal merger. But a tax-cutting proposal to share police across Somerset County failed. And across New Jersey, towns want out of regional school compacts over uneven tax burdens. Senate President Steve Sweeney’s bill to withhold state aid from towns that could save money by sharing, but choose not to, is stuck. South Hunterdon’s new district found a mix in which all taxpayers share the $500,000-a-year savings, illustrating the possibility. As local governments struggle to stay under the state’s 2 percent budget cap, towns and school districts will look for new ways to save. Successes in South Hunterdon and Princeton should be applauded as examples for others to follow.