LOWER TOWNSHIP — Residents in three Cape May County towns will get to vote in November on a nonbinding referendum on whether they want to dissolve the regional school district.
That is just one of the questions the Lower Cape May Regional Board of Education voted unanimously to put on the Nov. 5 ballot. A second question asks if Cape May should be permitted to withdraw from the district, which has served Cape May, Lower Township and West Cape May for more than half a century.
Cape May has complained for years about a state funding formula, based on property values in the towns, that has it pay a disproportionate share at the grade 7-12 district. The city recently commissioned a study that found the city pays $79,977 per student compared with $30,493 in West Cape May and $7,663 in Lower Township.
There have been lawsuits at other regional districts where towns with high property values but few children share a school with towns with much lower property values and many more students. Before such a case can get to court, a process must be followed that includes studies, a public referendum, a petition to the state Department of Education and other steps.
The board has been asked twice before to bring the issue to voters and declined. In one recent case, nobody on the board would second a motion by the lone Cape May board member to bring the issue to voters.
One difference now is an appellate court ruling Aug. 12 in a similar case involving Seaside Park and Berkeley Township. Seaside Park, which has higher property values but few students at the Central Regional School District, sued to change the state funding formula. Seaside Park lost in the lower court and the decision was upheld in the appellate court.
The ruling was favorable to the Lower Cape May board’s attempt to keep the status quo, and the issue was expected to go to the voters eventually anyway, because that is a step in the process.
Board President Richard Hooyman said that at some point there would be a vote, and the timing was good to have it this year.
“We spoke to our attorney, who just read the Seaside Park case, and we thought it would be a good idea. The court made reference to a vote. If we have to do it anyhow, it’s probably better to do in November, when it won’t cost us anything,” Hooyman said.
Vito Gagliardi, an attorney Cape May hired for this issue, said the board is not following state statutes. The two previous times the board was asked to have a referendum the question was about the funding formula. Gagliardi said the board can approve such a question because it merely “changes where the dollars are coming from.”
Gagliardi, however, said the board can’t approve a question on dissolving the district or having one of the towns leave. He said this must be approved by the state Department of Education. He said such a vote must be a special election and can’t be tacked onto the general election in November.
“If the question passes, it can’t be put into effect. There is a statutory process, and they didn’t follow it,” Gagliardi said.
Peter Tourisn, the board’s attorney, said the board knew a referendum question was inevitable at some point.
“Let’s see what the voters say. It doesn’t cost us anything. We’re trying to nip it in the bud,” Tourisn said.
Cape May has been following the process. The city commissioned a $48,000 study on the issue and in July submitted a petition to the Cape May County superintendent of schools asking to withdraw from the district. The superintendent gave the other towns until Dec. 16 to do their own studies. Lower Township hired its own attorney and commissioned a study.
Meanwhile, the Lower Cape May Regional board submitted the questions to the Cape May County Clerk’s Office and Board of Elections. Clerk Rita Fulginiti could not be reached for comment Monday.
The district has a $31 million budget, but only $19.7 million is from local taxes. Cape May residents pay about one third of the budget, or $6.6 million, but only supply 5.4 percent of the students. The tax bill for each $100,000 in property value is higher in Lower Township, $291 compared with $232 in Cape May. The difference is the average assessment in Cape May is $628,863 compared with $259,500 in the township.
The Cape May study found the average tax bill in Lower would go up by $85 for each $1 million removed by Cape May leaving or changes to the formula. Cape May officials have said they are willing to negotiate changes to the formula that give some weight to per pupil costs.
The state formula for regional schools was based on property values when it was created in 1931. In 1953, the Legislature allowed voters at each regional school to change it to one based on per-pupil costs. In 1975, the Legislature shifted it back to property values. In 1993, the Legislature allowed a choice of property values or costs per pupil, or a combination of the two, but voters had to approve it.
Because Lower Township has many more registered voters and would face increases in school taxes if Cape May leaves, the ballot questions are not expected to pass.
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