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Originally published Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:52 PM

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Book closes on NJ school districts without schools

The school districts in such New Jersey hamlets as Hi-Nella (population 1,029), Teterboro (population 18) and Victory Gardens (population 1,546) will be history by the time schools open in fall 2010 under a bill signed by the governor Tuesday.

Associated Press Writer

HADDONFIELD, N.J. —

The school districts in such New Jersey hamlets as Hi-Nella (population 1,029), Teterboro (population 18) and Victory Gardens (population 1,546) will be history by the time schools open in fall 2010 under a bill signed by the governor Tuesday.

That doesn't mean any schools will actually close: Those districts and 23 others do not operate any.

For policy wonks, politicians and barstool grumblers alike, the number of school districts in the state - 616 - is constantly cited as one of New Jersey's problems. But how to trim it is not so easy - even when it comes to these districts.

The U.S. Department of Education says that that as of the 2005-06 school year there were 285 districts nationwide that for some reason did not operate schools. Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont had the most - more than 50 each.

Mike Griffith, a finance analyst at the Education Commission on the States, said communities are often reluctant to give up the anomalous districts.

"There's a possibility your tax rates could go up. There's really a possibility you would lose choice," he said.

In New Jersey, a 1969 legislative study called for eliminating districts without schools. But it wasn't until a 2007 law that lawmakers made it mandatory.

The non-operating districts were to be merged with bigger districts by last year. Not only was the deadline blown, but three more districts have closed their schools since then and joined the ranks of the non-operating.

The law passed last week seeks to clarify how the tiny school districts should be merged with their larger neighbors. The New Jersey School Boards Association objected, saying that voters should have a choice on whether to merge.

A main feature of the law deals with one of the hang-ups: How to handle taxes.

Now, the non-operating districts have volunteer school boards that generally meet once a year and one very part-time employee whose job it is to write tuition checks to districts where the students attend classes.

That can be a small amount. Tavistock, for example, is a golf course with some big homes on it - and a total of 20 residents. But it has its own local government and school board. In the coming year, the little town with seven homes will send one student to school in neighboring Haddonfield, paying a total tuition of $14,805.

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If Tavistock taxpayers paid a share based on their property values, for all Haddonfield school students instead of just the one who lives in Tavistock, their property tax bills would skyrocket, surely eclipsing the Haddonfield school tax bill of $6,742.

The new law gives the state education commissioner authority to decide whether towns sending students to other districts should pay based on school enrollment, property value - or some of both. And it phases in any changes over five years.

The state is planning to merge 13 school districts out of existence this summer and 13 more next summer.

At a ceremony in Haddonfield Tuesday, Gov. Jon S. Corzine hailed the move as overdue and a step toward the larger goal of consolidating more government entities.

"This is essential to the heart and soul of our tax relief," Corzine said. "Reducing the size of government, developing greater efficiencies over time."

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