The only school in the Audubon Park School District was closed in 1978 and now serves as a day-care center. The Hi-Nella School District has never had a school of its own. The Newfield School District still owns a school, but leases it to the neighboring Buena district.
The three South Jersey districts are among 23 in New Jersey that operate no schools but soldier on, collecting about $18.6 million in local school taxes and $9.1 million in state aid and paying administrators to handle the paperwork required to send children to neighboring school districts.
These "nonoperating" districts would seem to be easy targets in the state's efforts to consolidate local government functions and reduce property taxes. What could be easier to eliminate than a school district without a school?
As part of a months-long attempt to reduce the state's property taxes - the nation's highest - the Senate on Monday passed and sent to the Assembly a bill to authorize county superintendents to eliminate nonoperating school districts in their counties.
But, as with so many consolidation efforts, two big hurdles loom: money and control.
Residents of nonoperating districts fear a bigger property-tax bill and a smaller say in their children's education.
Audubon Park, for instance, pays about $10,000 a child to send 140 students to neighboring Audubon schools, which have an enrollment of 1,627. Audubon Park taxpayers pay $50,000 in school property taxes, while Audubon taxpayers pay $9.5 million. So Audubon Park contributes 8.6 percent of the students but 0.5 percent of the tax revenue.
Most of Audubon Park's tuition money comes from the state treasury: The school district gets $1.46 million in state aid, second most of any nonoperating district.
If Audubon Park's taxpayers were taxed at the same rate as taxpayers in Audubon, their school taxes would quintuple.
Another Camden County nonoperating district, Tavistock, has one student, sent to neighboring Haddonfield. Tavistock, which consists of eight residents and a golf course, collects about $11,000 in school taxes to pay Haddonfield for the student's tuition. If Haddonfield were able to tax Tavistock at the Haddonfield school tax rate, it would collect $455,000.
In Gloucester County, Newfield sends 200 students to Buena, paying about $1.7 million in tuition, $700,000 for special education, and $170,000 for transportation. Newfield collects $1.57 million in school property taxes and $1.1 million in state aid. The small school district still owns Edgarton Memorial School, an elementary school it leases to Buena.
Newfield's school district essentially acts as "a collecting agency for funding," said Henry Bermann, business administrator for Newfield and nine other South Jersey districts. But the nonoperating district serves another purpose, he said: "It's a spokesperson for the residents of Newfield. Otherwise, there'd be no voice for the residents."
If the Legislature compels the assimilation of nonoperating districts by the districts that receive their students, Bermann said, it should require that the small districts be represented on the consolidated board.
"You have to give some level of comfort to the residents of the sending district," he said.
"Communities need to know the financial impact and perhaps have some financial incentives to enter into voluntary consolidation," said Diane DeGiacomo, superintendent of Buena, a regional district with about 2,500 students.
State Sen. John Adler, the Cherry Hill Democrat who was cochairman of the Legislative Joint Committee on Public School Funding Reform, said it was "logical and obvious" to eliminate nonoperating districts.
Adler said the Legislature needed to create funding formulas so that mergers would not penalize taxpayers in the nonoperating districts, at least the poor ones. Then, he said, the nonoperating districts should "just go away and be rolled into" their receiving districts.
But Adler said he doubted this session would produce laws mandating or encouraging the closure of the nonoperating districts.
"It certainly makes sense, but with the apparent failure of real reform efforts on the broader issues, I'm doubtful the current Legislature would be willing to force this," Adler said.
He said efforts to reduce New Jersey's property taxes by consolidating local governments and reducing public-employee benefits had run into opposition at every turn.
"Nobody wants to change things in their backyard, and somebody's backyard is everywhere," Adler said.