Forty years of school finance litigation — and we still can’t agree what it means to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.
The latest Abbott v. Burke ruling didn’t distinguish between the two parts of New Jersey’s most famous constitutional phrase, but it seems unlikely we’ll ever get to thoroughness without efficiency. In the real world if not in the courts, there’s no separating the two, and it’s time for the Legislature to give both their due.
The system for funding and operating our public schools is hopelessly wasteful: a fractured, Byzantine system that allows good money to be wasted on redundant programs and unnecessary bureaucracies. The problem lies with New Jersey’s overabundance of local government. With 566 municipalities and 616 school districts, we simply have too many administrative entities trying to do the same thing. New Jersey taxpayers elect mayors to govern towns with fewer than 25 residents and pay superintendants to oversee districts with fewer than 50 students.
The waste is remarkable. Consider Mendham, home of Gov. Chris Christie. It’s a single community, but the town is split into two local governments: Mendham Borough and Mendham Township. Each municipality has its own K-8 school district, each with fewer than 1,000 enrolled students and each with a superintendant making more than $150,000 per year.
The two municipalities are also part of the West Morris Regional High School District, which includes Chester Township, Chester Borough and Washington Township. The regional district pays its superintendant $192,000 per year to watch over the five towns’ high school kids.
It’s an elaborate — and expensive — mess. It’s no surprise that, at a spring 2009 town hall meeting, Christie called the divide between the two Mendhams “crazy.”
There’s a better way. Representatives from the Mendhams, the Chesters and Washington Township are discussing several cost-saving measures, including a consolidation of the various school districts and, more boldly, a consolidation of the five municipalities. A recent study commissioned by Courage to Connect NJ, the only statewide nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to consolidation and shared services, found that multi-town municipal consolidations could lower property taxes by up to 40 percent in some cases.