LOWER TOWNSHIP — Lower Cape May Regional School District’s board rejected an attempt Thursday to let the voters decide if the funding formula that determines how much each town pays should be changed.
The grade 7-12 district educates students from Cape May, Lower Township and West Cape May. Cape May has been complaining for years that the funding formula based on property values is unfair to its residents. They would like it changed to one based on enrollment.
As property values have risen in Cape May, young families with children have been priced out of living there. The city paid $72,074 for each of its 85 students last year and it is closer to $80,000 this year, according to City Councilman Jack Wichterman. Lower Township taxpayers pay less than $8,000 per student.
On Thursday night the lone Cape May representative on the nine-member board, Gary Gilbert, made a motion to bring the issue to voters in the three towns. The motion failed for lack of a second. The same thing happened in 2004 when Cape May first brought the issue to the board.
Wichterman knew the seven Lower Township members on the board were not likely to approve the proposal, but he was hoping West Cape May representative Kathy Elwell would second the motion to bring it to a vote. The city is trying to exhaust all remedies before bringing the issue to the courts.
“I was hopeful West Cape May might second it, but she chose not to,” Wichterman said.
Elwell was not on the board in 2004 but knew the motion failed for lack of a second. She also said she knew voters in all three towns would have to approve the changes for the formula to be adjusted and this was not likely to happen. Wichterman said Cape May voters would approve it but he acknowledged Lower Township voters would not.
“There are costs for an election and it will probably fail,” Elwell said.
School officials said the special election would cost about $25,000.
After the meeting, Wichterman admitted that changing the formula to one based on enrollment would cost residents of Lower Township, who would each pay about $85 more per year in property taxes for each $1 million Cape May saves. He said the city was willing to negotiate on the issue and have a percentage of property values and enrollment.
Board members from Lower Township did not support a referendum.
“When the system worked for Cape May there wasn’t a problem,” said board member Gary Playford.
When the district first formed in 1956 there were more students from Cape May than from Lower Township. The formula, however, was based on enrollment then. In 1975, the state Legislature changed it to a formula based on property values. In 1993, the Legislature changed the law to allow voters in a school district to change the formula. It can now be property values, enrollment or a combination of the two, but voters in every town in the district must approve any changes.
Cape May hired a law firm specializing in such cases and is following its direction. Kerri Wright, an attorney with that firm, said the next step is asking for a referendum on dissolving the district or at least allowing Cape May to leave it.
Vito Gagliardi, another attorney with the firm Cape May hired, said the courts won’t hear such a case until all administrative remedies are explored. Gagliardi has been successful in the courts having formulas changed in other districts.
Janet Pitts, of the Lower Township Taxpayer’s Association, is hoping Cape May is not successful.
“It would be a tremendous increase in costs for the taxpayers of Lower Township,” Pitts told Wichterman in the hallway after the board meeting.
“We’re going to pay $6.8 million this year for about 80 kids to go to school. Property values in Cape May have gone up, but that doesn’t mean our salaries have gone up. It doesn’t mean we got raises,” Wichterman replied.
Pitts said the problem will continue because barrier island towns are losing population, especially young couples with children. Wichterman, however, said Hurricane Sandy may change the playing field. He said, for example, it could reduce ratables on Long Beach Island, where regional per pupil costs are even higher, and this would come at the expense of mainland towns such as Stafford Township.
“Next year, with the loss of property value on Long Beach Island, they could pay less. We’ll see what happens there,” Wichterman said.
Wichterman also warned that West Cape May, by not joining Cape May’s cause, could end up paying more if the city gets the formula changed.
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