Glen Ridge: Creating an Autonomous Public School District

Whether to Secede?

Unfunded state and federal mandates are strangling the Glen Ridge Public Schools as well as traditional public school districts nationwide.  Unfunded mandates drive school district budgetary deficits, property tax increases, operational restrictions, and educational program and service reductions.  When the costs and consequences of these mandates are combined with a statewide 2.0% tax and expenditure limit (TEL) or cap, the Glen Ridge school district is compelled to consider whether (Read, 2010) “to effectively secede from New Jersey’s public school system.”   

Glen Ridge along with the majority of New Jersey’s public school districts can no longer afford to pay for state and federal unfunded and under funded mandates because the district is forced to spend disproportionately more to meet the requirements of these mandates than it receives in total state and federal financial aid.  This creates a budgetary deficit.  Making up for this mandate-created deficit annually forces Glen Ridge to make extremely difficult choices.  The challenges involved in the budgetary decision making process were exacerbated when the Glen Ridge school district along with dozens of others statewide lost all of its state financial aid.  Moreover, the state of New Jersey’s imposition of a 2.0% TEL further constrains the district’s financial outlook. 

While the state and federal governments force Glen Ridge to fully fund the unfunded portion of their mandates, Glen Ridge must make up for the mandate deficit and balance its budget annually.  There are, however, only two kinds of programs and services offered by our public schools:  those that are mandate protected and those that are not mandate protected.  The Glen Ridge school district like public schools nationwide, therefore, must choose between cutting non-mandate protected programs and services or raising property taxes.

Unfunded Mandates Drive Budgetary Deficits

When a school district experiencing increases in mandate-driven uncontrollable expenses becomes limited by a 2.0% TEL, it must cut expenses even more severely to stay within the cap.  There is no exemption for the ever increasing costs of the state’s special education mandates included within Governor Christie’s 2.0% TEL (Maxwell, 2010,) for example.  Public school districts, therefore, must allocate scarce financial and human resources to pay for the unfunded portion of mandates and spend disproportionate administrative time on external reporting.  A school district spends less time and money on core educational programs and services as a result.   

Because traditional public school districts such as Glen Ridge are required to fund the unfunded portion of all state and federal mandates over which it has no control, state and federal mandates drive the overwhelming majority of the district’s expenditures and, hence, property tax levies.  Cuts to state aid or especially the elimination of state educational aid as is the case for Glen Ridge may force a traditional public school district to increase class sizes so as to minimize its expenditures for teachers and aides.  But this will lead to lower test scores and likely No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) operational and financial penalties. 

Reduced or zero state aid particularly when combined with a 2.0% TEL, therefore, gives a school district only one course of action:  hold property tax increases within the state imposed percentage point limit while simultaneously cutting non-mandate protected programs and services but fully funding the unfunded portion of all mandates.  That is, cutting regular education.  The ultimate irony is that property taxes could be slashed nationwide especially those funding our public schools and there would be no need for TELs, if the state and federal governments would just fully fund all of their mandates! 

A Question of Autonomy

Trenton continues to blame school districts such as Glen Ridge for their property tax and expenditure increases rather than take responsibility for its role in forcing district budgets to increasingly higher levels.  Instead of fully funding its mandates which drive up the cost of public education, Trenton focuses largely on constricting the funding, budgets, operations, and independence of local school districts. Given these state imposed burdens, costs, and constraints are most likely to become even more severe, what should a public school district do? 

How could Glen Ridge restructure its educational system such that the district would not only enable its public schools to increase the property taxpayers’ return on their investment but also greatly improve the quality of education while holding their schools accountable to these standards?  The question of how to achieve the proper level of autonomy, therefore, is the challenge confronting the Glen Ridge Public Schools.

What is autonomy?  Autonomy, in its most fundamental form, means that a school district is free to develop, design, and implement its own budget.  The budget is the financial representation of the district’s educational plan; therefore, the district must have full authority to acquire and allocate the financial and human resources necessary to providing those educational programs and services that fully meet the needs and priorities of the school district.  Indeed, if something is not in a school district’s budget, it will not be in any classroom!  This requires gaining control over all of a public school district’s financial, operational, pedagogical, curricular, and administrative functions so that the district is ultimately able to provide an academically rigorous learning environment that maximizes student achievement.  

Options for Autonomy

To achieve the proper level of autonomy for its school district, Glen Ridge is considering a number of options including (Read, 2010) “converting some or all of the four schools in the 1,932 student district to charter or private schools.”  The purpose of any conversion is to implement a new governance structure that will operate with much greater autonomy from state and federal mandates than the Glen Ridge school district currently enjoys.  Whatever form this new governance structure may take; it should provide the basis for financial soundness, operational flexibility, educational innovation, student achievement, and maximizing the taxpayers’ return on their investment in their local public schools, all of which are currently constrained by state control. 

Although (Read, 2010) “New Jersey will allow a public school to become a charter school if 51 percent of the teaching staff and parents sign a petition for it, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.  That has never happened.”  The privatization concept is also being considered for which Dr. Bruce Baker, Associate Professor of Education at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education (Read, 2010,) stated that, “There are precedents in municipalities in Vermont and Maine. The towns raise tax dollars to send high school students to a private school.”  Another alternative is to transform the district into a set of private schools operated either by a locally elected board of education or by a private for-profit firm.  

Plank and Smith (2008) report that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “the Louisiana legislature created a Recovery School District” within which the “state intends to reopen most of New Orleans schools as charter schools, pioneering what stands to become the nation’s first all-chartered public school system.”  New York City has expanded its Empowerment Schools program (Plank & Smith, 2008.)  Chicago has implemented a more complex program (Plank & Smith, 2008) by “replacing up to 100 low performing schools” which can be operated as “district performance schools, charter schools or as contract schools.” 

But would any of the aforementioned options provide the proper autonomy such that Glen Ridge would gain control over its operating budget and, thereby, have the ability to provide a top quality education that meets the needs and priorities of the district rather than objectives set remotely in Trenton?  Glen Ridge should strive for the kind of governance structure that is worth the effort, if it is to confront the many challenges to achieving the proper kind of autonomy.  How, then, should Glen Ridge restructure its educational system?  

Autonomy and Self-Governance

To achieve the proper autonomy, Glen Ridge could reinvent itself by becoming an entirely unique version of a local public school district that is autonomous self-governing, self-funding, and as free as possible from state as well as federal mandates.  As an autonomous school district, Glen Ridge would eliminate the excessive financial and administrative burdens imposed by state mandates.  It would be much more cost effective and efficient for the district to provide educational programs and services without the administrative burden of state requirements.  Self-governance would increase the financial resources available for the classroom because the funds that are currently used for compliance with state mandates could be redirected to improving student learning and achievement, which after all is the real mission of our schools.  

Self-governance would empower the school district to improve the quality of education in ways more consistent with the priorities of the local community rather than state mandates.  Finding ways to legally opt out of the state system perhaps through a state sanctioned voter approved referendum would restore full decision-making authority to the local level.  Because decisions guiding the operations of Glen Ridge’s self-governing school district would no longer be made largely at the state level, parents, teachers, administrators, the board of education, and local taxpayers would be better able not only to shape the quality of education provided in the local schools but also to hold their local schools accountable for this outcome.  In this context, the conversion could be considered as achieving (Plank & Smith, 2008) “autonomy for accountability.”  

Becoming an Autonomous Self-Governing School District

An autonomous self-governing school district would be independent of the state system but would remain a public school district serving the same local community rather than a confederation of charter schools, private schools or schools run in full or in part by a private company.  But in return for the ability to become autonomous and, therefore, free from state mandates, a self-governing school district would forgo all state aid!  Self-governance would provide a public school district with the authority necessary to improve education consistent with the priorities of its local school community as well as the flexibility to innovate rather than be forced to march in lock-step to the state’s one size fits all mandates that fit no district.  Opting out of the state system would restore full decision-making authority to the school district. 

Once the process leading to independence is approved by the state, a public school district could possibly become self-governing when a majority of the registered district voters who voted in a district-wide vote approved of the change.  While these votes would comply with the laws governing ballot procedures, campaigns, and elections, they would be held in April so as to provide sufficient lead time to convert to self-governance by July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.  Once the district community voted to authorize the school district to become self-governing, it would be governed solely by its board of education without oversight from the County Executive Superintendent, Board of School Estimate or municipal government.  Board of education members would continue to be chosen from among the registered voters in the school district. 

Local property tax levies rather than tuition would continue to be the primary source of funding for a self-governing public school district.  An autonomous district would be eligible to receive appropriate state or federal grants.  The annual operating budget would be decided by its board of education rather than be subject to district-wide public votes so as to be consistent with the annual budget approval process for municipal and county governments which are not subject to approval through a vote of their respective electorates.  Alternatively, the annual operating budget would be subject to voter approval should municipal and county government budgets be similarly submitted for public votes. 

Taxpayers can vote on their local school district budgets in all but a handful of towns but no taxpayer is able to vote on the budget of his/her municipal or county government despite the fact that these two levels of government are funded almost entirely by local property taxes.  Because taxpayers can vote on school budgets, they can hold their school systems accountable but without a corresponding vote on municipal and particularly county government budgets taxpayers can not hold these levels of government accountable.  This is one of the chief reasons why county government costs New Jersey’s taxpayers more than $6.1 billion annually! 

Taxpayers choose the local public school district that best meets their needs and one that will contribute to their property values by exercising true Tieboutian choice (Tiebout, 1956) and voting with their feet.  But taxpayers vote not only with their feet but also on school district operating budgets, capital projects, and board of education members.  Through the exercise of these votes, taxpayers control the quality of education provided by their local schools as well as the level of property taxes levied.  Their collective decisions lead to a Pareto efficient allocation of local public education. 

Locality is crucial for accountability.  Because state policy makers especially as compared to the local board of education are more distant from those most affected by the state’s mandates, students, teachers, and schools, the impact of their mandates is more adverse on a public school district’s finances and the quality of education it provides.  Our public schools, therefore, must be given the choice of becoming autonomous, self-governing, self-funding local public school districts free from state mandates so that they can be liberated to provide a top quality education while held being accountable to this standard by those who are the most capable of doing so, the school district’s taxpayers. 

Optional Compliance

Many states pass legislation known as (Fix & Kenyon, 1990) “optional compliance” to force state government to fund its mandates.  Optional compliance provides public school districts and (Fix & Kenyon, 1990) “units of local government the right not to comply with state mandates” and “can place added pressure on the legislature to fund the cost of mandates if it wishes to ensure that all local governments comply.  This right of optional compliance, in effect, can give the local governments” and local school districts “new leverage in dealing with the state legislature to ensure that they do get funding.  If they do not, they are under no obligation to carry out the mandate.”  

Still, states often find ways to provide much less than full funding for mandates by circumventing optional compliance laws.  States regularly restrict their obligation to reimburse the unfunded portion of mandates by (Fix & Kenyon, 1990) having a “narrow definition of what constitutes a mandate.”  States often enable (Fix & Kenyon, 1990) “the legislature to exempt the state from providing funding under certain circumstances.”  In addition, states often manipulate the labeling of the source of funds to minimize their payouts.  Fix and Kenyon (1990) demonstrate that “funds are provided simply by earmarking some portion of what is considered local aid or general revenue sharing.  If a state merely earmarks funds that area coming from another source as opposed to providing new funds, then the state is really not accomplishing the objective of mandate reimbursement.” 

States also manipulate the timing of when local school districts receive funding rather than pay local schools districts in advance of the mandate’s implementation.  Fix and Kenyon (1990) use California’s experience to demonstrate, “In California, however, funding is provided on a reimbursement basis; funding can occur long after the mandate is implemented.”  School districts and “local governments carry out mandates, submit claims, and hope to get paid.  In the meantime, they must carry out the mandate; they have no option.”  This forces California’s public school districts to either borrow or cut regular education programs to fund the unfunded portion of mandates while hoping for full state reimbursement which does not include the refunding of any incurred interest expense. 

Unfunded Mandates Force Cuts to Regular Education

While the State of New Jersey is increasingly mandating programs and services to be provided by the state’s public schools, its level of financial aid and the portion of the mandates for which it provides funding are declining rapidly.  But public school districts have no control over many of the major cost drivers resulting from under funded mandates such as the expenses associated with increases in enrollment, transportation, legal actions, and the number as well as the mixture of special education students.  The range of state and federal under funded mandates includes but is not limited to No Child Left Behind (NCLB,) Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA,) Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC,) Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS,) bilingual instruction, free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches, incremental state special education requirements, special education related law suits, biohazard training, radon testing, state and federal standardized testing as well as programs to prevent bullying, teasing, and taunting.  

School districts are required by state and federal laws to provide the special education programs and services included in a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP); therefore, special education budgets cannot be cut and the under-funded portion of special education’s costs must be made up from other budgetary sources.  To offset the increased costs of under funded special education mandates, districts are increasingly forced to significantly reduce programs for regular education students because property tax increases have been limited largely through state legislation.  Under funded state special education mandates not only have sharply increased the competition between regular and special education programs for funding within a school’s budget but also have created sharp divisions within a school’s community because they pit the parents of special and regular education students against each other in the fight for funding.

In 2005, New Jersey state aid covered less than one-third of state mandated special education programs and services while the federal IDEA is funded only at approximately five percent of its cost to local school districts nationwide.  Since January 2008, special education financial aid has been further and significantly reduced for most districts statewide based on the new state funding formula that reduces a district’s special education aid calculation to the extent that its classification rate is above the state average.  In addition, wealthy districts have been losing entitlement aid for at-risk children, particularly special education as these and other categorical financial aid funds are now subjected to the formula’s wealth-equalizing local share calculation.

All of this comes at a time when the costs for special education are skyrocketing.  Increased costs for mandated preschool programs including intensive services for autistic students and lower special education student to teacher ratios are a major part of the problem.  But more importantly there are also increasing numbers of costly out-of-district placements as well as parental lawsuits against public school districts for the purpose of obtaining private school placements for their children at the public’s expense.

New Jersey has the highest proportion of special education students in out-of-district placements as well as the fourth highest classification rate for special education eligibility in the country.  Many of New Jersey’s school districts find that out-of-district placements can consume as much as 50% of the special education budget despite covering approximately ten percent of special education enrollment.  The students placed in out-of-district schools tend to be the most expensive because they are usually the ones most in need of special education programs and services.  Depending on the student’s disability, the annual cost of sending a student to an out-of-district private school can range from roughly $70,000 to over $250,000 especially for the most educationally and physically challenged students.

The legal costs arising from parental special education-based law suits are another major expense for schools.  As parents have become more knowledgeable about what constitutes special education programs and services, they have increased their demands to have their children receive not only more intensive services as well as increasing their children’s classification but also more placements in private schools which have resulted in more parents suing school districts for these additional benefits. 

New Jersey’s legal system operates according to a fee shifting principle in which a school district losing in an administrative court not only must pay all of the judgment costs but also all of the plaintiff’s legal costs including those for their attorneys and expert witnesses regardless of the length of the trial.  Litigation for special education proceedings often takes longer than civil law suits; increasing both legal fees and court costs.  There is the additional cost resulting from the amount of time required of teachers, child study teams, and administrators to appear in court rather than in school.  While school districts do settle a number of cases rather than run the risk of potentially more expensive outcomes, these settlements fuel the cost of providing special education.  Holding New Jersey school districts harmless from such law suits could be another way in which to enable school districts to allocate more of their scarce resources to student instruction.

The State of New Jersey requires special education programs for children with educational disabilities ages three to five, particularly autistic children.  While the only difference for preschool aged children is the state requirement to have a speech pathologist on the child study team, the same IEP, evaluation, eligibility, due process, and least restrictive environment requirements apply for all special education students regardless of age.  These mandated pre-school programs put an additional expense burden on local school districts as long as the mandates continue to come without the requisite funding from the state. 

The special education students to teacher ratios are set by the State of New Jersey and they are, necessarily, lower than the student to teacher ratios for regular students.  These staffing ratios are based primarily on the student’s IEP, classification, and intensity of services required.  The student to teacher ratio for a class for children with the lowest level of disabilities having one teacher has a maximum of eight while the maximum is twelve for a class with one teacher and one aid.  Although ratios usually range from four to seven depending on the severity of the student’s disability, class sizes exceeding six students require two aids in addition to the teacher.

Classes for children with autism and other profound cognitive disabilities are limited to a ratio of three to one.  While providing a good education for students with special needs, without the requisite state funding for these mandated levels, the higher costs of such low student to teacher ratios are often offset by higher student to teacher ratios for regular education.  Because smaller class sizes have been shown to improve learning for all students, the under-funded state mandates for special education can have a deleterious effect on regular student education.

When the State of New Jersey requires its public schools to pay for an ever increasing proportion of special education costs through its under funded mandates, the state is not only forcing property taxes to increase but also pressuring districts to find the missing funds by reducing the regular education budget.  Such forced cuts to the regular education budget may cause school districts to reduce the number of regular education teachers which would result in much larger class sizes for regular education students.  Larger class sizes have been shown to lead to lower test scores which make it more difficult for students to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by NCLB.  As a result, school districts are much more likely to be subjected to many of NCLB’s more stringent financial penalties.  This further reduces the financial resources available to support quality education. 

Unless the people of New Jersey wish to have not only higher property taxes but also a downward spiral in the quality of their public education, then the State of New Jersey should pay the full costs of its mandated school programs and services particularly special education.  If all of New Jersey’s special education mandates were fully funded, the quality of the education of all of New Jersey’s public school students, both regular and special, would be the greatest beneficiary. 

Conclusion   The consequences of centralizing most of the control over the allocation of a school district’s financial and human resources at the state level gives rise to many unintended obstacles for local school districts.  Chief among them is the contradictory challenge of trying to hold local school districts accountable to standards made remotely at the state level that do not reflect and often conflict with unique local educational requirements and priorities.  As a result, when the state imposes a one-size-fits-all approach to local school district resource allocation, funds tend not to be used as efficiently as they could be under local control.  School systems are more accountable when decision making over financial and human resources is made at the district level. 

A local school district can improve student and school performance best when the district is empowered to allocate its financial and human resources according to its educational plan rather than being required to follow state directives.  The school district would have all the tools it would need to hold its schools and students accountable because it could make real time decisions based on specific measurable performance goals for each school and student.  The school district is the most qualified to continually calibrate local performance goals because only the school district can combine a keen understanding of local educational necessities with the timely and specific assessment of individual school and student achievement.  State control is too remote which causes not only inappropriate delays but also decisions that tend to be inconsistent with the district’s educational plan.  

In response to the shortcomings of the state dominated school system, Glen Ridge needs to adopt a new model for the control structure of its local school system that is largely free of state domination.  Because a local school district’s control structure affects how all of the school system’s stakeholders combine to produce a quality education, Glen Ridge needs the most appropriate control structure that will provide the highest level of accountability.  As a result, Glen Ridge might consider adopting a control structure that provides for maximum autonomy and self-governance. 

What matters most in terms of maximizing autonomy and self-governance is that Glen Ridge employs the control structure that fosters the greatest public support for the maximum public funding of its autonomous public schools.  Glen Ridge would be able to operate more cost-effectively with lower property taxes and earn a higher rate of return on its educational investment if it became an autonomous self-governing school district by opting out of the state system. 


Fix, M. & Kenyon, D. A., (1990). Coping with Mandates:  What are the Alternatives? Washington, D.C.:  The Urban Institute Press. 

Maxwell, L.A., (2010). N.J. Property Tax Cap Sparks Funding Concerns. Education Week, 29(36). Retrieved from

Plank, D. N. & Smith, B., (2008). Autonomous Schools:  Theory, Evidence and Policy in The Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy, Ladd, H. F., & Fiske, E. B., (Editors) (402-424). New York, New York:  Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 

Read, P., (2010, July 4).  Glen Ridge Considers Big Change to Schools. The Star Ledger, pp. 1, 4.

Tiebout, C. M., (1956). A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures, The Journal of Political Economy, 64, 416-424.

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