1 school district per NJ county proposed

1 school district per NJ county proposed
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey voters would decide whether the state should create 21 county school districts under a plan considered Wednesday by legislators looking to cut the nation's highest property taxes.

The referendum would ask voters to approve the shift next year, a massive undertaking for a state with 616 school districts spread across 566 municipalities.

If the plan goes through and voters approve, new countywide districts would begin operating on July 1, 2009, and would be led by county school chiefs appointed by the governor.

Sen. Bob Smith, a sponsor of the plan and co-chairman of a special committee considering property tax reforms, said inefficiencies in New Jersey's many school districts have helped drive up property taxes. Most of the $20 billion in property taxes collected annually in New Jersey go to schools and the average New Jerseyan pays about $6,000 in annual property taxes, twice the national average.

Smith, D-Middlesex, has cited Maryland's schools as an example of an effective county system. He said countywide districts could save $400 million statewide by eliminating administrative costs, but called that a conservative estimate.

"If nothing else, creating a more administrative structure is one way of saving dollars," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the other committee co-chairman.

The plan would be included in reform recommendations due by Nov. 15 to the Legislature as part of an effort to change the state's tax system by year's end. Gov. Jon S. Corzine recently said he hopes the effort will hold property tax increases that have averaged 7 percent annually to no more than 3 percent.

Smith's plan was opposed Wednesday by school administrators, teachers, boards and districts that argued there's little evidence county schools would save money.

"School consolidation could easily result in higher costs and higher taxes," said Eva Nagy, a state school boards association vice president.

Teachers union officials wondered how a single superintendent could oversee 76 schools in Bergen County.

"We must never sacrifice the quality of our public schools in pursuit of savings that may be minimal, ephemeral or even nonexistent," said Barbara Keshishian, a New Jersey Education Association vice president.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, have expressed doubts about trimming the number of districts.

"Some New Jerseyans may feel that to move to the creation of 21 county school districts as a first step may be too radical of a first step, and rather than do that we should preserve local school district lines while also trying to achieve all the efficiencies we possibly can," Roberts said last week.

Roberts has pushed a bill that would create county school superintendents with authority over local school budgets.

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