NJSBA Press Attack

Both the Star-Ledger and The Record ran articles yesterday describing New Jersey School Boards Association’s deep pockets, in spite of the impoverishment of the 588 school districts they serve. Here’s a few of the numbers bandied about: $7 million in district dues (school districts are mandated by state statute to pay for membership in NJSBA); $2.7 million in 2009 income from conferences, ads, and services; $4.6 million in payroll; $12.3 million in cash and investments; $7 million in current renovations to its Trenton office (instead of the planned $18 million conference center in Hamilton, though it already paid $1.6 million in cash for the land).

Not to mention that “its staff is enrolled in the state-run health and pension systems even though they are not government employees.” But, hey, who’s counting.

What do we expect? With almost 600 school districts and 4,000 school board members, NJ has spawned an entire industry that offers education, services, information, and lobbying. NJSBA provides other valuable services, particularly negotiations training and new member orientation. The staff we know at NJSBA works valiantly to promote legislation beneficial to school boards and school children. And yet… let’s see: $7,143,825 in annual dues divided by 4,000 board members is $1,786 dollars per board member per year. Yikes.

The announced 5% drop in dues this year isn’t enough to lessen the blow. The 3 day-come-to-Atlantic City-and-party convention has been reduced to drop-in-for-the-afternoon-in-central-Jersey: prudent, yet an attendance killer. A fee-for-services schedule would be more attractive to school boards and less attractive to NJSBA.

In many ways, NJSBA is a symptom of NJ’s bloated educational infrastructure, impossible to rectify unless we can get past our addiction to local control. Just hypothetically, think county-wide districts. 21 school boards would yield 189 school board members, less than 5% of our current 4000 elected school trustees. 21 rounds of negotiations with NJEA instead of 591 rounds. 21 prepared budgets instead of 591. The mind reels.

Would NJ taxpayers get back 95% of the current allocation towards NJSBA? Who knows. But it wouldn’t be chump change.

The irony is that in the last year or two NJSBA has actually developed into a surprisingly progressive organization that seems willing to confront NJEA's regressive tendencies. It's promoted NJ's Race To The Top application and tenure reform, and made a deft switch to online conferencing. But the heat from the press and the public was inevitable; there's a gaping discrepancy between value and cost in its pricing structure. Not to mention that its employees need to get off the government health benefits wagon.

Here's an idea: what if NJSBA agreed to a membership fee freeze for one year? Give all school boards a pass on dues and come up (quickly, but they have the staff, right?) with a pricing structure that experiments with a fee for service schedule. If it doesn't work, they go back to a charging annual dues -- mandated by law anyway -- and if does work than they have a new paradigm. Either way they recover some luster and show a sensitivity to districts' financial morass. Win-win.

Update: Frank Belluscio, Director of Communications for NJSBA, refers us to a letter from NJSBA Prez Raymond Wiss that disputes the article published yesterday in the Star-Ledger and The Record (see above). According to Mr. Wiss, the article “starts with a faulty premise,” an imagined link between the building renovation approved in 2009 and the state aid cuts and budget defeats a year later. In addition, NJSBA’s current building is a dump, NJSBA dues increases are lower than stated, and only 10% of its activity is lobbying. Here’s a link to the full rebuttal.