Former Gov. Whitman: Mergers Help Raise Level of Education

Statewide there’s no direct correlation between education standards and the amount of money spent to implement them. A state auditor’s report recommends smaller school districts consolidate to raise the level of education and lower property taxes. Former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman has been working toward that since 1998. Whitman told NJTV News Correspondent David Cruz that in a recent op-ed she pointed out that South Hunterdon had successfully made the transition.

“I meant that they finally had decided that they can merge school districts successfully, save property tax payers money and still ensure that the kids get a quality education,” said Whitman. “It’s been so hard to get people to understand that where the bulk of their property taxes goes as it’s levied by the municipalities and the counties is to education, is to the schools. When you have schools that don’t have a big student body or that are right next to another, where you could successfully merge without compromising the quality of education, that’s an advantage that really should be realized.”

Whitman said the majority of property tax money usually goes toward school districts and that no matter how big the schools are or how many students are enrolled, superintendents and assistant superintendents have to get paid. According to Whitman, merging schools would ensure that money went to the overall education experience for kids.

In South Jersey, there are school districts that have very small student populations. According to Whitman, expenses are still being made to the schools regardless of the number of students. She said that not every school district in the state needs to merge but that it would make sense to understand the relationship between property taxes and schools.

“What we’re talking about here is not merging every school district to make great huge ones but where it makes sense to understand the relationship between property taxes and schools and that’s where your money goes, the bulk of that money. The state doesn’t levy the property tax and it doesn’t spend it, it doesn’t collect it and doesn’t spend it, that’s up to the municipalities and it goes primarily for the schools,” said Whitman. “So where you can find where it makes sense, you need to do the study. … Parents need to get comfortable with the idea that in fact it doesn’t have to have your town’s name on the side of the school. … That you in fact can merge and share services and that saves overhead in operating costs.”

There are currently more school districts than municipalities in New Jersey, which Whitman says is mind-boggling. She also said that New Jersey has many layers of government and that a lot of it is because residents have a feeling that they must have home rule.

“I love home rule in the sense that we want communities to be able to establish their identities and control those identities, but there also comes a time where you need to look and say, ‘Where can we do better by our taxpayers without sacrificing that individuality that sets us apart as a community?'” Whitman said. “One of the places you can do that is with your schools. You can also do it with some of the other municipal services. You can do it with fire, in rescue, you can do it with emergency, you can do it with police. It makes sense. Not everywhere, but in a lot more places than we see it today.”

Previously Somerset County Community College merged with Hunterdon County and according to Whitman concerns were raised about who was going to have a voice in the merger. She said that the merger worked out and that it is a system that now serves a population broad enough to ensure the future of that college.

Whitman also said that the state consists of many small communities and that some of those municipalities can merge.

During her time as governor, Whitman brought up the idea of municipalities merging in 1998. She says that she hopes that it’s less difficult now. She said she has seen some movement toward it in the legislature.

“I think it’s getting hopefully less difficult and actually I saw that there’s movement now in the legislature to actually promote this and put more carrots out there to encourage,” said Whitman. “We used the carrot approach when I was governor to try to get people to think about merging and actually we got some to do it but the taxing situation is such that people just can’t live here any more and we see people moving and going to Pennsylvania just across the border where property taxes are less. And again it’s the property tax. People want to blame the state for property tax but it’s not. It’s a local initiative really and so the control lays with the people of the ballot box at the local elections.”

Related: New Calls For School Consolidation in New Jersey