Residents in all three towns in the Lower Cape May Regional School District may finally get to vote on whether Cape May can leave the school system and whether the district should be dissolved.
Cape May City Council last week unanimously voted to petition the state Department of Education for a binding referendum later this year. Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman is shooting for a vote in September.
“All three municipalities have to vote on the same day,” Wichterman said.
The grade 7-12 district includes Lower Township, Cape May and West Cape May, but in recent years Cape May has complained that it supplies one-third of the district’s tax revenue but only 5.4 percent of the students. The state funding formula is based on ratables, and real estate is worth more in Cape May than the other two towns. Those high real estate values have resulted in fewer families with children in the resort town.
The issue was headed to the ballot last year before Cape May filed suit. The city opposed the nonbinding referendum the district’s Board of Education was planning to put on the November 2013 ballot and did not want the issue decided in a general election.
The city argued the referendum question should be binding and should be decided in a separate election. Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez agreed with the city in October.
Leaving a school district is a long, involved process guided by state statutes. The DOE in March rejected the city’s initial proposal to leave or dissolve the district. That, however, only set up the next step in the process that gave the city 30 days in which to ask for a referendum.
“The deadline is April 10. We’re on the right track, and we did what we have to do. It’s just one of the steps we have to take, and we’re taking it. I don’t see how they can deny the right to have a referendum,” Wichterman said.
After the April 10 deadline, all parties will have 15 days to answer the petition. Lower Township, which faces hefty tax increases if Cape May leaves the school system, has hired attorneys to counter Cape May’s attorneys and is fighting the initiative.
“They’re just wasting their money and our money. They’re not going to win. They say they’re not going to hurt the school. It will hurt the school. I see damage to the school and damage to the town,” Mayor Mike Beck said.
That doesn’t mean the township will fight the referendum question. Most sides have said they want to hear from the voters. The Board of Education wanted a vote last year but to save money wanted it during the November general election.
“We could have saved the cost of a separate vote and expedited the process. It’s a shame, because somebody will have to pay for this election,” Superintendent Christopher Kobik said.
Kobik, however, supports a vote.
“I think the public schools belong to the voters, and as a result the public should certainly have a say on the matter,” Kobik said.
Under statutes, the DOE will set up a Board of Review to determine whether the issue goes to voters and the amount of debt each member of the district may end up assuming. The district has been unable to incur new debt during this process and has complained it is hurting its ability to take on infrastructure projects.
Representatives from the DOE, the state Divison of Local Government Services and the Treasury Department make up the Board of Review. Any interested party can call for a public hearing during this time, and any of the three towns, or their school boards, can appeal any decision the board makes.
The board could deny the petition based on issues such as excessive debt burden for the remaining towns, not leaving enough students and other issues, but Wicherterman noted a Board of Review just recently allowed a vote at the Pascack Valley Regional High School District. Woodcliff Lake asked to leave the district that also includes River Vale, Hillsdale and Montvale. Hillsdale and River Vale opposed Woodcliff Lake leaving. The vote has not taken place yet.
A successful withdrawal would require a majority of affirmative votes in Cape May and an overall majority in all three towns. A successful dissolution of the district would require a majority vote in two of the three towns as well as an overall majority of all votes cast.
Wichterman does not expect that to happen, since Lower Township, which stands to lose the most, has the most voters. He said this is another step to get the issue to the courts and argue for changes to the funding formula.
Contact Richard Degener: