When Gov. Corzine signed a bill last week that established a process to eliminate 26 small school districts that do not operate schools, it seemed to many people a no-brainer. Legislative sponsors hailed it as a commonsense step toward consolidation that would save public money and still support education.
Where there were 616 school districts statewide, there will eventually be 590.
But, like most things in life and government, it's not that simple.
Critics say some homeowners in the newly merged districts will pay higher property taxes - if not now, then down the line. They also argue that voters should have had a voice in what happened to their districts.
While the legislation calls for a nonoperating district to have a seat on the board of its new, merged school district for at least a year, critics note that "sending" municipalities could eventually find themselves with no resident representative if one can't muster the votes to win a seat.
Add to that issues such as transfer of old school property and student transportation, and things can get complicated.
Up until now, nonoperating districts paid tuition to send their children to usually adjacent, larger districts.
"The legislation is so new, it's hard to tell the practical implications," said Henry Bermann, who acts as business administrator for the Newfield School District, a Gloucester County nonoperating district slated for extinction.
But the state has moved quickly. The day after Corzine signed the law, state education officials announced the first 13 mergers, effective immediately.
The New Jersey School Boards Association had appealed to legislators to give voters the option to decide what should happen with their districts.
"We feel it would have been a cleaner process to make it part of the regionalization that will go to voters next year," said Frank Belluscio, association spokesman.
Contrary to some perceptions, Belluscio said, the nonoperating districts, with their minuscule paid staffs, were not costly and, in some cases, a cheaper alternative.
Elimination of the nonoperating districts was not a new idea. A 2007 law called for it, but the deadline to enact the consolidations was missed.
The new law gives county education superintendents discretion in determining how much each of the municipalities in the merged districts must raise in tax funds to support educating children. The levies can be based on enrollment, property values, or some combination of the two in, according to the law, "the least fiscally disruptive" manner. In cases of significant tax changes, a five-year phase-in is allowed.
One of the mergers announced last week is slated for such a phase-in: Pemberton Borough, which will be merged with the larger Pemberton Township School District in Burlington County.
For months, the borough has been at odds with the state over its tax levy. The borough wanted a levy that was below the minimum called for by the state's school-funding law. State officials said that wasn't legal.
However, according to the new merger plan, the borough's levy would fall from $1,003,940 in school year 2009-10 to $766,847 in 2014-15. During the same period, the township's levy would rise from $10,953,343 to $11,190,436.
Pemberton Township schools business administrator Pat Austin predicted the tax increases would not go over well with township residents.
Though the borough's eventual levy will be even less than what the state said was too low this year, John Knorr, business administrator for the eliminated borough district, didn't see much to celebrate in the new law.
"It's a precursor to what's going to happen," Knorr said. "If a district doesn't choose to regionalize, it's going to be rammed down their throats."
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester) said that what he and other sponsors of the bill had sought was "equity here in the long haul." He added, "It's not easy stuff, but change is never easy."
He acknowledged some residents would see their taxes go up while others would see theirs go down. And while some municipalities might, at times, not have residents on school boards, he said that in the former system, sending districts had no representatives on receiving districts' boards.
If there are problems with the new law, he said, it could be changed legislatively.
"It's ever-evolving, as law always is," the assemblyman said. "We're not at the final spot here."