Cranbury school administrators will keep tabs on possible merger plan

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Small school districts in the state like Cranbury should be merged into larger regional districts, said a panel looking to improve New Jersey’s fiscal health and make government more efficient.

Mandatory school consolidation was one of a series of proposals released by the New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup, a committee the state Legislature created. In a report issued last week, the panel recommended merging all K-4, K-5, K-6, K-8 and K-9 districts “into K-12 regional districts to improve the quality of education and promote efficiency.”

“New Jersey faces a series of fiscal and economic challenges that threaten to undermine our ability to address the needs of our residents and invest in the programs and services that will move the state forward,” state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland) said in a news release announcing the group’s report.

Sweeney was one of 25 members on a panel that included past and present lawmakers from the Republican and Democratic political parties and policy experts.

The report states school property taxes were $14.85 billion for the fiscal year ending in June “and made up 52.4 percent of the total property tax bill.”

“While New Jersey ranks fourth in the nation in school spending per pupil, only 59.3 percent of that amount gets spent on instruction,” the report states. “New Jersey spends a higher percentage of its budget on support services, including general administration and operations and maintenance than New York, Pennsylvania or Maryland, and 71 percent more than the nation as a whole.”

During the 2015-16 school year, Cranbury spent $18.9 million, or $24,653 for each of its roughly 768 pupils, according to data found at the state Department of Education. The district’s costs include paying tuition for its children of high school age to attend Princeton High School.

A Cranbury school official reacted to the recommendation of merging school districts.

“This is not a new idea,” Board of Education President Karen Callahan said on Aug.14. “This has been floated around numerous times in the past.”

She pointed to how Cranbury already shares services, including through its arrangement with the Princeton Public Schools and with the municipality. Callahan said as far as she knows, there is “little data or evidence that would show widespread consolidation would yield any significant savings to taxpayers.”

Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson, (D-Mercer, Middlesex), who represents Cranbury in the Legislature, could not be reached for comment.

“In Cranbury, we are very proactive in utilizing shared service opportunities with other school districts, as well as other municipalities,” Chief School Administrator Susan L. Genco said on Aug. 14. “I am confident my colleagues in other small districts regularly do the same. These shared service opportunities allow us to be as cost efficient as possible while maintaining programs and services.”

Princeton counts on the tuition money it receives from Cranbury, $4.8 million for the upcoming year, as revenue in its school budget. Officials have warned about the impact losing that money would have on the district.

“In Princeton, we value local control and we think that’s important,” Board of Education President Patrick Sullivan said on Aug. 14. “But I haven’t seen anything specific about the proposal, so I can’t really speak to it.”

The report does not call for merging towns of less than 5,000 people, something the panel had considered. Cranbury, which is home to fewer than 4,000 people, would have fallen into that category.

Cranbury Township Committeeman Daniel P. Mulligan III, who had been critical of forced mergers, said this week there is “a lot of bad things happening to our town at the state level, potentially or it looks like.”

“So we all have to keep our eye on the ball, stay aware, and we need to advocate on behalf of Cranbury because the state elected officials are not advocating (for) Cranbury,” he said during the Township Committee meeting on Aug. 13. “They have other agendas in mind.”