LOWER TOWNSHIP — Bring on the vote.
Attorneys for Lower Township and the Lower Cape May Regional School District have responded to Cape May’s attempt to have a public referendum on leaving the school system. Both are supporting the vote on the issue.
Cape May earlier this month petitioned the state Department of Education for a binding referendum on leaving the district that includes Cape May, Lower Township and West Cape May. All parties involved in the case had 15 days to respond to the petition.
Brett Gorman, the district’s attorney, and Frank Campbell, the township’s attorney, who were both hired just for this case, recently filed legal paperwork supporting a vote even as they argued Cape May has not followed the process correctly to get to this point.
Cape May has complained it pays too much of the grade 7-12 school district’s budget. It has 5.4 percent of the students but pays one-third of the budget based on a state funding formula geared to property values in the towns. The city has tried to change the funding formula to one based on enrollment and recently moved to leave the district entirely.
The township and the district are fighting the move but have agreed there should be a vote.
“Lower Township agrees that the issue of Cape May’s withdrawal from the Lower Cape May Regional School District should be submitted to the voters. Respondent rejects Cape May’s assertions concerning alleged financial inequities,” Campbell wrote in his response.
Gorman also denied that Cape May’s funding share was “grossly disproportionate” and wrote that the district “is troubled” Cape May’s sole motivation is a reduction in taxes that overlooks the “deleterious impact” a withdrawal would have on the students.
“The district is charged with providing its students with the best possible educational opportunities, and the withdrawal of the city of Cape May from the district will cripple those educational opportunities. The district is confident that such a referendum will demonstrate that the voters of its constituent municipalities are more interested in the education of its students than an alleged tax benefit for small, albeit wealthy, minority,” Gorman wrote.
While supporting a vote, Gorman and Campbell question whether the city fulfilled its requirements to get to this point. One requirement is that two appraisals must be done of the school property, and they found no evidence this was done.
A second requirement is that the city must make exhaustive attempts to have a referendum on the funding formula. Campbell said this was not met last year when the Cape May representative on the school board made a motion for such a question. Nobody seconded the motion, so it died.
Vito Gagliardi, the attorney handling the case for Cape May, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The next step is for the DOE to set up a Board of Review to consider Cape May’s request. Campbell said the board has 60 days to make a decision.
The board can also host a public hearing on the issue, but Campbell said he would argue there is no need for one.
If a board approves a public question, the vote would likely be in September on a date specifically set aside for school ballot questions.
A withdrawal would be approved if voters in Cape May, and the overall majority of voters in all three towns, approve it.
Since residents in Lower Township and West Cape May would conceivably have to make up about $5 million in funding if Cape May leaves, it is not expected to pass. Officials in Cape May say they expect defeat, but after that they are allowed under state statutes to take the issue to court.
Mayor Mike Beck is hoping the vote will be the end of the issue but knows it probably won’t be.
“This is just an inconvenience for them to get to the real game, which is in the court system,” Beck said.
Contact Richard Degener: