A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Gorilla in Room Causing High Admin Costs in NJ Schools - Too Many Districts

A recent letter to the editor of the Asbury Park Press complained that New Jersey schools are top-heavy with administration. But instead of arguing to merge small districts to save money, the writer of the letter goes off on a little personal tirade about bogus degrees and lucrative pension packages. The writer doesn't dare talk about consolidating districts. I just don' t understand why we would rather eliminate school librarians, lose three dozen teaching positions and outsource our janitorial staff than merge our district with Keyport. But there we are.

No, Mr Colts Neck, we don't suddenly have terrible abuse of the system and rising administrative salaries and benefits. In fact, total costs for administrative salaries and benefits have stayed fairly level over the past three years. Administrative salaries in Matawan-Aberdeen District's category (6 public schools K-12 with more than 3,500 students) have only gone up a total of 2.3%, from $1,093 per pupil to $1,141 pp, based on statistics I found under Indicator 9 on the state chart I mentioned in this blog on Monday evening.

We have too many school districts in New Jersey, something Mr Colts Neck barely alluded to in his letter. It's really just the same problem we have with our overabundance of municipalities, something my regular readers will recognize as a frequent topic in this space. Mr Colts Neck was no doubt scared to suggest merging his school district with a nearby town or two to be more efficient and less costly. Why might that be? Because he has to worry that his neighbors will become angry at him and shout, "What were you thinking? We can't have neighboring town X having a say in our children's education!"

And it wouldn't be just curriculum decisions up for grabs. Not just Fox News vs MS-NBC disputes. No, I'm talking about parents sitting down with a neighboring town's parents to discuss after-school programs, building security, and bus schedules. And just who is prepared to decide which school building(s) to put in mothballs and which superintendent(s) to send packing or demote?

We'd save a lot of money by merging districts to reduce administrative top-heaviness. But no, we'd rather be distracted by less substantial discussions.


  1. I've not found any research suggesting significant cost savings from merging large school districts.

    Here's an example.

    "Overall, consolidation is likely to lower the costs of two 300-pupil districts by over 20 percent, to lower the costs of two 900-pupil districts by 7 to 9 percent, and to have little, if any, impact on the costs of two 1,500-pupil districts."

    We have nearly 4,000 students.

  2. First off, you've focused on the capital costs, not operating costs, the latter being the issue at hand. Second and probably most important, you've selected a study of rural schools in New York State. We're in the most densely populated state, so we're just about stepping on one another, while rural schools have all sorts of difficulties finding economies due to the distance between facilities. You'll have to toss another report into this argument as I remain unconvinced. Even then, common sense says that you'd save money.

  3. Here's a recent overview of past studies:
    An Exploration of District Consolidation

    Looks like it depends on who's doing the consolidation and where.

    However, I don't think there are any studies suggesting great savings once you pass a couple thousand students in your district. The cost curve tends to flatten at that point.

  4. That report provides a fine overview with some very useful demographic statistics. Note, for example, that NJ has the highest proportion of schools to local governments (42.9%) and far and away the smallest square mileage per district (13). (Massachusetts, an equally population dense state, has an average of 31 sq mi per district.) And over half of all US students are in school districts with 10,000 or more total students. (Less than 15% of students are in a school district the size of MARSD.) The report is rightfully unwilling to suggest that an ideal district size exists, pointing out that many factors are involved. But Page 9 of the report makes it clear that NJ meets nearly all of its criteria pointing towards consolidation.

    We shouldn't dismiss the value of consolidation here based on studies of consolidations attempted in less qualified places. We live in a state where many districts are ultimately qualified to merge.

    It's well worth brainstorming the pros and cons, if nothing else. For example, besides reduced administrative and purchasing costs, consolidating regional districts could result in a larger Academy program and possibly a centralized regional Special Ed program. Foreign language and music programs could also benefit from consolidation if done creatively. Merging could increase busing costs and force school closures.

    We'd have to talk it through and see if it would benefit us. The current situation makes looking at consolidation more important than ever.

  5. I agree some programs would benefit from increased size and I don't think the busing would be that much more expensive but here are some problems:

    1) Removing inequities - Both communities will demand equality. For example, let's say one district heavily invested in technology. The other district will now demand the same. Bringing both districts to the same comparable levels in all major areas could increase costs.

    2) State financing - Once districts merge, the financing formula may change, resulting in less state financing.

    3) Tenured personnel - Most administrators have tenure so you'd be automatically eliminating the ones without tenure or the least seniority. Since it's unlikely that the most senior administrators are also the most valuable, you could have a reduction in performance.

    4) Matching communities - Merging districts is like making a marriage. Which neighboring community would want to merge with us and vice versa?

    5) Unwieldy board - The current setup allows Matawan to elect one board member every year. Assuming Matawan retains that right, how many board members are you contemplating?

    Bear in mind, we've been discussing consolidating services between Matawan Borough and Aberdeen Township without success. Matawan doesn't want to merge anything because, as the smaller community, they'd lose more of their personnel. Aberdeen's opposed because Matawan hasn't been properly investing in its infrastructure.