The Cost of Home Rule

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If we are to ultimately control the cost of government . . . we are going to have to deal with the issue of consolidation and shared services.

That’s Governor Corzine speaking yesterday at the League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City. And here’s Governor-Elect Christie at the same dais, according to the Star-Ledger:

Christie, who throughout the campaign said towns needed to combine municipal functions to save money, said everyone in the state would need to bear some of the pain in getting New Jersey back on track.

Though he never said the words “shared services” or “consolidation,” that’s the message the municipal leaders in the room said they heard.

“We’re talking about possible layoffs and consolidations that we’d prefer not to do,” said Ellen Dickson, president of Summit Common Council. “It’s going to be very painful but we have to do it or else the state will be unlivable.

The chatter is on track, but does N.J. have the stomach for it? Chris Daggett, our erstwhile candidate, said “no.” Certainly, there’s nothing in recent Jersey history to suggest otherwise. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently noted that the last consolidation was when Pahaquarry Township in Warren County, with a population of 6, merged with Hardwick Township in 1997. But all the dignitaries in the Conference Center have to do is look outside and they’ll see the cost of refusing to acknowledge the burden that our addiction to home rule places on our kids.

The Press of Atlantic City reported this week
that while N.J. ranks right near the top of states in household income, we also have some of the poorest school districts in the country. Atlantic City and Bridgeton, reports the Press, rank “among the worst 10 percent of districts in the nation and Wildwood is in the worst 3 percent.”

So let’s look at Wildwood, a school district with a District Factor Grouping of A, though it is not labeled an “Abbott district.” Wildwood High School in Cape May County is tiny – only 307 kids – and is its 4th year of a School in Need of Improvement according to NCLB ratings. A baffling 26% of kids are classified as disabled. Wildwood High actually doesn’t perform too badly on test scores: 31% of kids fail the 11th grade HSPA’s in Language Arts and 32% fail the HSPA’s in Math. 16.4% go on to 4-year colleges and 45.2% go on to 2-year colleges.

Now let’s travel 6.73 miles on Seashore Road and Route 47 to Lower Cape May Regional High School with a DFG of DE. Comparing test scores, 12.2% of Lower Cape May 11 graders fails the Language Arts HSPA and 18.9% fail the Math HSPA. That’s quite a bit better than the kids 6 and a half miles south. Lower Cape May also classifies an alarming 25.7% of kids as eligible for special education (what’s going on down there? Something in the water?). Of their graduates, 32.8% go on to 4-year colleges and 44.5% go on to two-year colleges.

Here’s something to ruminate on. The cost per pupil at Wildwood High School is $21,043. The cost per pupil at Lower Cape May Regional is $14,604. If the 307 kids at Wildwood were consolidated with the kids at Lower Cape May, the reduction in cost over one year – assuming we could educate the Wildwood kids at the same rate as the Cape May kids – would be $1,976,773.

No, it’s not all about money. Neither school is anything to write home about, but a six mile bus ride gives the Wildwood children, segregated in one of the most impoverished pockets of the country, a slightly better chance. It’s the most compelling reason to get over ourselves and consolidate school districts. What’s unclear is whether the dignitaries in the A.C. Conference Center have the wherewithall to make it happen.

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