@NJSenatePres ‘s @Path2ProgressNJ & the 800lb Gorillas In The Room

Cross-posted with Marie’s blog. Promoted by Rosi.

Expert analysis and witnesses are essential to the successful outcome of a trial, but in the court of public opinion, politicians often fail to enlist experts who may raise red flags about the policies they’re trying to sell to the general public. In my little corner of the universe—education—it happens too frequently. Analysis is done by study groups and commissions that often lack any real, working K-12 educators. 

The latest example is Senate President Steve Sweeney’s ‘Path to Progress’, which touts, among other things, regionalizing many of the state’s school districts and slashing (yet again) retired public employees’ deferred compensation. 

Here is the complete list of the commission’s members: 

MEMBERSHIP

Co-chairs:
  • Senator Paul Sarlo – Chairman, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee
  • Senator Steven Oroho – Senate Republican Conference Chair
  • Assemblyman Louis Greenwald – Assembly Majority Leader

Legislative Members:

  • Senator Steve Sweeney – Senate President
  • Senator Dawn Addiego – State Senator
  • Senator Anthony Bucco – Senate Minority Budget Officer
  • Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin – Chairwoman, Assembly Budget
  • Senator Troy Singleton – Chairman, Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs

Subcommittee Chairs:

  • Dr. Ray Caprio – Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy; Bloustein Local Government Research Center
  • Frank Chin – Managing Director, American Public Infrastructure
  • Richard Keevey – Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
  • Dr. Michael Lahr – Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy and Rutgers Economic Advisory Service
  • Marc Pfeiffer – Rutgers University, Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy; Bloustein Local Government Research Center

Non-Legislative Members:

  • Dr. Henry Coleman – Rutgers University, Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy
  • Lucille Davy – Of Counsel, Mason, Griffin & Pierson
  • Feather O’Connor Houstoun – Adviser for Public media and journalism at Wyncote Foundation
  • Ray Kljajic – American Public Infrastructure Inc.
  • Robert Landolfi – Business Administrator, Woodbridge Township (retired)
  • Senator Raymond Lesniak – Chair, Lesniak Institute for American Leadership
  • Jerry Maginnis – Rowan University, William G. Rohrer College of Business
  • Dr. Donald Moliver – Monmouth University, Kislak Real Estate Institute
  • Dr. Joel Naroff – President, Naroff Economic Advisers Inc.
  • Peter Reinhart – Monmouth University Kislak Real Estate Institute
  • Kurt Stroemel – President, HR&S Financial Services
  • Ralph Thomas – CEO/Executive Director, New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants

While this list reads like a Who’s Who of New Jersey public policy experts, notice the one highlighted name: Robert Landolfi. He is the only K-12 representative on the commission—and he’s retired. There are no real K-12 voices here, and none from South Hunterdon Regional School District, the only district in the past 25 years to successfully consolidate.

While Sen. Sweeney exults in the plan’s proposed successes at town hall meetings across the state, he and his cohorts fail to address the three 800 lb gorillas in the room: 


1. Public schools are not businesses:

While consolidation may bring about some savings in certain situations, we must not forget that school districts are not convenience store chains. We don’t sell soda and lottery tickets; we teach children, each of whom comes with different needs, and each district strives to meet those needs. Before we go down this road, the study commission needs to understand that what may be good for one district, may not necessarily be good for all of them. Special services for low income, special needs and ESL students must be the same or better than what they currently have. And when consolidation means going from a district of approximately 3200 to a merged district with close to 10,000 students, as would be the case with my central Hunterdon County district, there will be no savings, and services will suffer. The commission should look closely at what happened in the southern part of Hunterdon County: 

In 2016, NJ Spotlight reported on the five-year process of merging four very small Hunterdon County districts into one regional district with a combined population of less than 1,000 students

South Hunterdon’s merger of four school districts in 2013 has proven to be an example of both the good and the difficult in school regionalization. 

The good news is that the merger appears to have worked… 

The more cautionary news is that this was a long and labor-intensive process in what was actually one of the simplest mergers: four districts that were essentially unified in practice, if not in name. 

There are no regrets, the officials said, but they acknowledged that it doesn’t happen overnight… 

[School Board President Dan Seiter said that] the process started as far back as 2008, with an initial resolution of all four boards of education to look at consolidation: South Hunterdon Regional High School, West Amwell, Lambertville, and Stockton. Each among the smallest districts in the state, they already served as feeder districts into the regional high school. 

It took five years and “meetings after meetings after meetings” that led to a referendum to move toward a feasibility study, Seiter said, where voters in all four communities voted to proceed. (emphasis mine)

Voter buy-in is essential or the process will fail. We’ve seen this time and again. Whether the disastrous One Newark, or the Urban Hope Act in Camden, or other education ‘reforms’, shutting parents, taxpayers and local school officials out of the decision-making process is a recipe for disaster. Town halls are one thing; making sure taxpayers have a seat at the table is completely different. 

2. Charter schools:

Back in 2014, when Sen. Sweeney and then Asw. Donna Simon (R-LD16) were clamoring for municipal and school consolidation respectively, I wrote about the false narratives they were touting, and spoke with one of the state’s preeminent school funding experts, Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, who had this to say about charter schools:

If consolidation is such a great idea, whether to promote integration, remove administrative redundancy, etc., then it would seem utterly foolish that we continue to expand charter schools. These schools tend to operate at inefficiently small size, further segregate our students, and when they do grow to a size where they operate as districts within our districts, they create significant administrative redundancy — a whole layer of “management corporation” siphoning district funds passed on to charters. 

We know, for example, from IRS 990 filings, that the administrative structure of Uncommon Schools has plenty of well paid admins—including their “managing director” for Newark Uncommon at about $200k in 2012. No doubt much higher now in 2014. So, in addition to Newark Public Schools, we’ve added, through this structure, additional governing layers that siphon resources, but don’t show up on the traditional books. 

So, Newark has a superintendent with a $240k salary, but now has districts within it which use funds generated by management fees skimmed from the charter allocation (which passed through the district) to pay several entire additional administrative teams.(emphasis mine)

Consolidation without plans to end this redundancy is hypocritical. If charter schools are real public schools—as their supporters claim—they will survive the process, but the process will not survive if they are not included in it.

3. Another blow to retired public employees’ deferred compensation:

Since 2011, when Gov. Christie signed the bill known as Chapter 78 into law, tens of thousands of public employees have seen their take home pay decrease every year as health insurance premiums and additional pension contributions have risen. Many have had to take on not only second, but third jobs to make ends meet. Others have simply left public service to make more money in the private sector. NJ public employees now pay the highest individual insurance premiums and the 10th highest family premiums in the country while earning less than their private sector counterparts. They will also have to work longer to collect their pensions and get less in return—if there’s even a pension system left when they do retire. 

When Gov. Christie signed that law, he also instituted a cost of living adjustment (COLA) freeze on all retirees’ pensions, and with the system on life support, that’s not changing any time soon. Retirees are hurting.

Now, Sen. Sweeney wants “all new state and local government retirees to pay the same percent of premium costs they paid when working.” I’m sorry, but that’s not only unsustainable, it’s downright cruel. 

Instead of proposing public employees pay more, why isn’t the commission recommending a push for Medicare for All? Why isn’t the commission doing anything about containing the always-increasing cost of premiums? It’s just so much easier to make the people who can least afford it pay more while you close the door on your mansion and forget about their struggles. And they can’t even move out of state to save some money because Gov. Christie signed a bill into law that basically makes public employees indentured servants. We can’t leave. 

I am not naive. The state’s fiscal future is bleak. We have a projected $5 billion revenue shortfall for this fiscal year, the pension fund will run out of money in about 10 yearsour credit rating is in the toilet, and property taxes are eating most of us alive. But all this isn’t merely the result of Gov. Christie giving away billions in corporate tax breaks and in the Exxon settlement. No, there’s plenty of blame to go around, on both sides of the aisle, and it goes back decades. Yet, some elected officials continue to put the burden of fixing the system they broke squarely on the backs of the students they purport to help and those of us who have been continually ordered to give more, do more, and receive less in return, with little thought of how we will be able to make ends meet. It’s always the little guy who pays.

So, if Sen. Sweeney doesn’t like it when people show up to his town halls and challenge these draconian measures, maybe he needs to remember what it was like to be a rank and file iron worker worrying about how to pay bills and keep a roof over his head. 

Teachers in eleven states have gone out on strike to protest draconian cuts to school funding, low pay and terrible working conditions—things that are not only sacrosanct to collective bargaining, but also make for excellent public schools, of which NJ has an abundance. If this commission pushes forward with their recommendations, I believe New Jersey may be next.  

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