State forces school districts to merge

Helmetta district folded into Spotswood school system


State officials last week ordered the consolidation of the Helmetta and Spotswood school districts, a move that some local officials described as abrupt and worrisome.

“No one called to say this was happening this week,” Helmetta Mayor Nancy Martin said on July 2, a day after she learned of the change. “We just woke up to the news.”

Helmetta was among 13 “non-operating” school districts — so named because they have no schools of their own and instead pay tuition to send students to another district — that were eliminated July 1 by the state Department of Education. It was the only non-operating district in Middlesex County. The districts were nixed after Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation on June 30 to establish procedures for merging them with larger, neighboring school systems where their children already attend classes.

“This is an important step forward in Governor Corzine’s efforts to share services and make government more efficient,” state Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy said. “These districts don’t operate any schools; they are charged tuition by the districts to which they send their students. Many of them have only a handful of students, yet they have boards of education and many hire staff to fulfill their duties.”

As a result of the merger, state officials project savings of $51,687 due to the elimination of costs presently incurred by Helmetta for general administrative services and the salary of its part-time business administrator.

Helmetta’s three-member Board of Education will be dissolved, but it may retain its business administrator through September to assist in the transition.

Spotswood’s five-member Board of Education will be expanded in the coming month with the appointment of a sixth voting member from Helmetta who will serve through next April. The board will then return to five members, and as the members’ terms expire, voters from both towns will elect each member at large. However, it may be difficult for Helmetta to gain representation on the board, given its disadvantage at the polls — Helmetta’s 2007 population was 2,012 compared with Spotswood’s 8,153.

“A very major concern of mine is … after next April 1, Helmetta may have no representation whatsoever,” Martin said, adding that it could turn into a matter of taxation without representation.

There will be no change in school attendance as a result of the merger, since Helmetta’s 291 K-12 students will continue to be educated in Spotswood’s schools.

Financially, there will be changes, but only after the coming school year. For 2009-10, the tax levies approved by Helmetta and Spotswood in last April’s school elections will remain in place. Helmetta’s school tax levy for the coming year is $3.2 million; Spotswood’s is $10.1 million.

A new tax levy allocation system will then be phased in over the next five years in order to ease the fiscal transition. The new levy may be apportioned based on pupil enrollment, equalized valuation or a combination thereof. Piegari’s report shows that whatever approach is used, the new system would bring an increase in Spotswood’s share and a decrease in Helmetta’s. Piegari recommends basing the new structure on equalized valuation. Under that system, if all other budget factors stay the same, Spotswood’s share would climb to $10.44 million in 2015, while Helmetta’s drops to $2.82 million.

What this means for taxpayers is unclear.

Both Martin and Spotswood Board of Education President Richard O’Brien said they do not know what the financial impact will be.

“We do not have definitive numbers yet, nor do we have written procedures from the county,” O’Brien said. “Rather, we have questions on this and other issues.”

A surprise announcement

Local officials have known for more than a year that the state was seeking to eliminate non-operating districts, and that Middlesex County Executive Superintendent of School Patrick Piegari had been directed to study the feasibility of a merger and issue recommendations. However, some were surprised by the suddenness of the move. In the past, some thought that such an action would have to be approved by the involved districts.

Helmetta School Business Administrator Brian Savage said in April that he had been denied requests to obtain a copy of the feasibility report filed by Piegari. Savage sent a letter to Piegari early in the year asking that the merger be put to a vote in the involved districts. The state allows for votes on the consolidation of operating school districts that are not K-12, and Savage asked that non-operating districts also have a choice.

“The impact is going to be too dramatic to not allow the public to have a say in this issue,” Savage wrote. “Give the voting constituency of the non-operating school districts at least the same opportunity as the other non-K-12 school districts.”

Savage said Tuesday that he is not certain where things stand with his position, which includes a 60-day termination clause. Regarding the consolidation, he said he has “too many unanswered questions” and is skeptical as to whether this will be the win-win situation that is sought. The projected savings, he said, amounts to very little.

“The taxpayers of Helmetta would be better served with a checks-and-balances system in place,” he said, referring to the town having its own school board.

Martin said she was frustrated to learn that Helmetta’s board tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to obtain information on the state’s findings and plans.

“I spoke to the Department of Education and was under the impression after the discussion [that] we would see the report prior to any action,” Martin said. Her biggest complaints are that the towns had no say in the decision, and that Helmetta may have little or no board representation in the future.

O’Brien said Spotswood was not given much information in recent months either.

“While we knew the non-operating districts were slated for closure, the state and the county have been developing procedures on the fly, and information has been hard to come by at times,” O’Brien said. “What would be voted on and when has never been made entirely clear to us.”

Local officials continue to have many questions and concerns. Martin said Monday that she reached Davy that morning to go over some of her concerns. She said there will be a meeting in the coming weeks with Piegari and officials from both towns.

Upon initially seeing the report, Martin, like Savage, questioned whether Helmetta would save any money, or if the savings would be worth the sacrifice.

“We calculated our Board of Education costs less than the $51,000 [in estimated savings], and even if it is $51,000, that is 2 cents [on the tax rate] or approximately $32 to the average homeowner,” she said. “That is a small amount of money to save for the loss of oversight and accountability.”

Martin said she is also concerned about the loss of deferred school taxes. From 1991 to 2003, she said, Helmetta’s municipal government deferred school taxes in order to keep municipal taxes down. Towns collect money for the school districts, and by law they can borrow up to 50 percent of these revenues to help stabilize the municipal tax rate. With the loss of the Helmetta Board of Education, Martin said she is concerned that the residents will have to come up with the $945,000 included in the municipal budget as deferred school taxes.

“No one has an answer on how this is going to be handled, and this is a very major concern to us,” Martin said.

O’Brien said school officials in Spotswood, which also receives high school students from Milltown, are prepared to work with the new arrangement.

“We remain committed to continuing to provide a great education for all the students we serve from the Helmetta, Milltown and Spotswood communities,” O’Brien said.

The state is also studying the feasibility of merging Milltown’s school district with Spotswood, and the county superintendent is expected to file a report on that possibility next March.