GENOVESE: Consolidation can ease property tax burden

GENOVESE: Consolidation can ease property tax burden

New Jersey gets the trophy year after year for the dubious distinction of being No. 1 in the nation for Highest Property Taxes. We need to change that.

Our sky-high property taxes will not diminish in a cloud of wishful thinking, by changing the school funding formula, by sharing services, by raising taxes, or by privatizing government.

Pundits, stakeholders, special interests and too many elected officials scoff at the idea of reducing the number of municipalities, school and fire districts. But how else will we be able to reduce expenses and drastically improve services? New Jersey has too much redundant government. Period.

If we do not make drastic changes to reduce the state’s nearly 600 school districts and 565 separate towns, then we will have to work even more days and weeks to keep up with our ever-increasing property tax bills.

The $30 billion we pay each year in property taxes represents 10 percent of what the entire country pays in property taxes. A staggering statistic.

So it is logical to ask, how does New Jersey deliver local services differently than the other 49 states? We are the only state in the nation to have hundreds of fractured school districts. Every other state has unified its K-12 school districts under one administration

If New Jersey were to unify all of the current K-6 and K-8 districts to K-12 districts, we would eliminate 275 districts and their administrative costs and not one student would have to attend a different school. That’s cutting the number of districts by nearly half without one student having to change schools.

For far too long New Jersey has been increasing the costs of schools without improving education. The only way we can stop the trend of eliminating programs, firing teachers, dropping Advanced Placement courses, overcrowding schools and underutilizing school districts is to work together to use our resources for the benefit of the students and taxpayers.

The current solutions proposed — including changing the school funding formula or increasing state aid by $500 million — will not reduce expenses by one dollar. They would simply shift the tax burden to the poorer districts, which goes against the state constitution and state Supreme Court rulings. But eliminating hundreds of costly administrations will reduce expenses and that- will reduce our property taxes.

We do not need more money to feed the beast, we need to tame the beast. Especially when we compare our “per-student cost” to Massachusetts and Maryland, both states with great schools comparable to New Jersey. Yet we pay $3.8 billion to $5.3 billion more per year than they do.

Gov. Christie Whitman tried to offer a referendum to let taxpayers vote on creating unified school districts. The effort was stopped by the state Legislature. The state auditor reported in 2014 that the Department of Education should increase its efforts toward school district consolidation as a means of reducing overhead.

How much longer can we wait to do the right things for our students, taxpayers, and state?

Our property taxes will continue growing until we have the teamwork and courage to take the necessary steps to streamline our school administrations and local governments. Think it can’t happen in New Jersey? It already has.

Four school boards worked together in 2013 to dissolve their school districts — Lambertville K-8; Stockton K-6; West Amwell K-8; and South Hunterdon Regional High School 9-12 — in order to create one brand new Pre K-12 unified district with one administration and one superintendent so the students can get a better and more consistent education. All three towns voted overwhelmingly in favor of trusting each other and working together for the benefit of the students, the teachers, and the taxpayers.

We can save at least a billion dollars and increase educational opportunity for all of our students simply by creating Pre K-12 unified districts across the state. We have a long way to go, but let’s get that highest property tax trophy off of our mantle once and for all.

Gina Genovese, the founder of Courage to Connect NJ and former mayor of Long Hill, is an independent candidate for governor.

Gina Genovese 2:45 p.m. ET May 18, 2017

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