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Consolidating New Jersey Districts Could Save Millions, Study Says

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New Jersey taxpayers could save an estimated $123 million annually if the state converted most of its regional high school districts into K-12 districts, according to a study by a Rutgers University researcher.

The study by Ernest C. Reock Jr., a professor emeritus at the university's center for government services in New Brunswick, N.J., concludes that the state's 49 regional high school districts end up costing taxpayers more money than if they were consolidated with their feeder elementary districts.

New Jersey has the highest per-pupil spending in the nation, in part because of its large number of relatively small school districts. Critics say the state's 626 districts would be more efficient if consolidated.

Mr. Reock's study found that of the 43 high school districts created between 1955 and 1983, per-pupil spending rose an average of 15 percent in the four years after the change when compared with the four years before the district's creation.

Even 10 years or more after the creation of a regional high school district, combined spending of the regional and feeder districts was 17.4 percent higher on average than in the four-year period before the change.

In his study, Mr. Reock uses three examples of regional high school districts consolidated with other districts to show that immediate cost savings of 8.3 percent a year are likely.

Applying that 8.3 percent to 40 of the 49 regional high school districts would save state taxpayers $123 million a year, Mr. Reock said.

Complicated Issue

But Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said merging districts is a complicated issue that does not always mean a cost reduction.

"Granted, you're going to save money in the central administration, but you're going to be looking at other factors such as[reconciling] two or more collective-bargaining agreements," he said. "But we believe regionalization [into more K-12 districts] should be encouraged."

The study cites annual per-pupil costs in the South Hunterdon regional school district and its feeder districts that were 48 percent higher (in relative terms) in 1991 than in the four-year period before the high school district was created in 1959.

Thomas Davidson, the superintendent of the South Hunterdon school district, said that figure was surprising.

A bill pending in the legislature would provide for a study of consolidating each regional high school district with its feeder districts, one of which has just 50 students in an elementary school.

"It's a very hot topic," Mr. Davidson said. "What I'm interested in as an educator is whether there are benefits from it for the education of youngsters."

More information about Mr. Reock's study, "The Cost Impact of School District Creation and Consolidation in New Jersey," is available from the Public Affairs Research Institute of New Jersey at (609) 452-0220.

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