County Governance of Education can hold key to reform

I have been serving in the New Jersey Legislature for more than eight years during which time I have seen four Governors talking about property tax reform. For too long, property tax reform and property tax rebates have been used interchangeably and several ideas several legislations were proposed. Property tax reform has been a campaign issue for decades. If so, why we are not able to resolve the issue or provide intelligent approach to address it.

We know that 60 to 80 percent of our property tax bills go towards education depending on the school district. There is some correlation between the amount of money spent and the quality of education and outcomes. I always questioned in my mind whether we are spending appropriately towards education or we bogged down in resisting change.

People acknowledge that we have too many school districts and the high administrative expenditure associated with it. We need to also realize that we are top heavy in our school administration costs. There have been many diverse opinions on how to fix the problem. But, almost every proposal has failed to tackle the root cause(s) of the problem or only tried at the periphery of the issue. I constantly hear that in New Jersey, “home rule” is sacred and no one would like to give up local control.

Now is the time of perfect storm in New Jersey. We have the enormous deficits in our budget, pension funds, transportation-trust funds. We have a structural problem in our fiscal situation. As Governor Christie puts it, “we have a crisis.” As we know, every crisis provides opportunity. It allows us to think out of the box, and put all options on the table. We must come up with solutions that enable us to meet our constitutional requirement of providing “thorough and efficient” education to our children. We must not allow the Supreme Court to tell us how to deliver such education. We need to come up with cost-effective ways in which we put more money in the class rooms. Bottom line, we cannot afford to have 600 school superintendents, 1200 or so assistant superintendents, 600 purchasing and 600 information technology departments, and so on. Many of our neighboring states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, etc. have county based school systems. New York City has more schools has only one superintendent.

Senator Bob Smith and I are proposing the creation of a county administrative school district, with a county school board and superintendent appointed by the governor and a referendum question on the November 2011 ballot so that voters can decide if they want to centralize public school governance and operations at the county level while maintaining local control of schools. A 2006 report from the Office of the State Auditor estimated the annual cost of salaries and benefits for superintendents, assistant superintendents, school business administrators and information technology coordinators at $553 million and an updated figure of $606 million in 2007.

In conclusion, New Jersey taxpayers can no longer afford to pay hefty salaries for hundreds of superintendents and assistant superintendents. We need a new and sensible approach to save taxpayers’ money, and streamlining expenses and cutting costs without hurting education. In addition, the proposal does not force change upon anyone. It simply gives voters a choice to try something different to save money. We have potential to save a lot of money for taxpayers by streamlining this system.

County Governance of Education can hold key to reform