Some of the $10 million that New Jersey budgeted to encourage local governments to share services in an effort to tame the state’s rising property taxes will go toward studying a controversial proposal to consolidate school districts, Gov. Phil Murphy’s office announced Wednesday.
In addition, money will be disbursed as grants for countywide shared-services fellowships and for the costs of making coordination work.
New Jersey has the highest average property-tax bills in the nation, and the Murphy administration sees the potential for cost savings and increased efficiency through shared services.
“As we lead our state towards the stronger and fairer economy that we hope to build together, it is our administration’s responsibility to provide these communities a platform from which to pursue efficient growth, achieve smart government, and provide relief to local taxpayers," Murphy said in a statement.
Lawmakers had asked for $40 million to support local-government collaboration, but the budget Murphy signed in June allocated a quarter of that.
More than half of the funds — $5.8 million — will go toward paying the onetime costs of implementing shared-service agreements, including new equipment, rebranding, and training, the governor’s office said.
Included in that pot of money is $2 million to help support studies of school district consolidation, including pilots for K-12 regional and countywide districts, according to a spokesperson for the New Jersey Senate Democrats. About half of the state’s roughly 600 districts operate as K-4, K-5, K-6, K-8, or K-9 school districts.
Merging them into regional K-12 districts was one proposal made last summer by a state work group tasked with finding ways to increase efficiency throughout New Jersey. School taxes make up the majority of real estate levies.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who convened the group, called school district consolidation and shared services cornerstones of the task force’s plan. On Wednesday, Sweeney urged the Murphy administration to "move expeditiously to get funding out the door to school districts, municipalities, and counties who are eager to move ahead.”
“School regionalization and countywide school districts will enable us to expand curriculum and educational opportunities, while holding down the school property taxes,” Sweeney said in a statement. “We have been meeting with leaders throughout the state … who are eager to make this a reality.”
The New Jersey Education Association believes that any effort to consolidate school districts should start at the local level, not as a mandate from Trenton, since local teachers and families know their communities best, and that discussions around consolidation should prioritize the educational needs of students, spokesperson Steven Baker said.
The state will put an additional $3.15 million toward competitive grants for municipalities, local authorities, and counties that “collaborate on extensive partnerships that produce shared services of significance,” according to Wednesday’s announcement. The state will determine winners “based on scope of impact, breadth of collaboration, and efficiencies generated.”
The final $1.05 million will pay for countywide shared-services coordinators to help identify opportunities for collaboration. Each of the state’s 21 counties will be eligible for $50,000 to hire someone as a fellow for one year.
The new Local Efficiency Achievement Program in the Department of Community Affairs will disburse the funds and offer support to the governments.
The budgeted funds advance the work of the two “shared-services czars” Murphy appointed last year to encourage local governments to collaborate.
“Every mayor, borough administrator, resident, and beyond, has an interest in achieving cost savings and efficiencies," Nicolas Platt, one of the czars, said in a statement. "We are all stakeholders in this effort.”