CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The other towns that make up the Lower Cape May Regional School District will be given extra time to counter a feasibility study by Cape May that seeks a possible withdrawal or dissolution of the district.
Interim Executive County Superintendent Richard Stepura delivered the news last week at a special meeting of school and government officials from Cape May, West Cape May and Lower Township, the three towns that comprise the school district.
The decision for now stops the clock on the 60 days Stepura had to conduct his own investigation of Cape May’s petition to withdraw from the school district. Cape May submitted its petition July 11, along with its own $48,000 feasibility study, starting a process that could lead to a vote by the public, or if that fails, a court case.
“This is going to be a multistep process,” Stepura told 24 officials from the three towns at a meeting Monday evening at the Old Court House on Main Street. “Any municipality or school board can submit a study to me. Once I get all of them, I have 60 days. I now have one from Cape May City.”
Stepura set Dec. 16 as the date to get the studies to him. This brought some mild protest from Cape May Councilman Jack Wichterman, who thought it was too much time, and from Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Jack Pfizenmayer, who thought it was not enough time.
Lower Cape May Regional School Board President Richard Hooyman said he would ask his board to authorize a letter to the state Commissioner of Education asking for an extension of time for a feasibility study.
Some also questioned how they would pay for a study with a state-mandated 2 percent spending ceiling on tax levies. Lower Township Superintendent George Drozdowski said the budget already was set for this school year. He wondered where he would come up with $50,000 for a study and who would pay election costs if the issue went before the voters.
After the meeting, Wichterman said he believed the earliest the issue could get before the voters would be November 2014.
Cape May officials contend that the state funding formula, which is based on property values, makes their residents shoulder too much of the costs of running the regional district, which covers grades seven to 12.
The city pays 35 percent of the budget but supplies only 5.4 percent of the students.
The tax bill for each $100,000 in property value in Lower Township is $291, compared with $232 in Cape May. The average assessment in the township is $259,500 while it is $628,863 in Cape May, but the bills are similar because city taxpayers actually have a lower tax rate than Lower Township taxpayers.
The governing body in Lower Township has already announced that it will do a study to counter Cape May’s study. If Cape May leaves the district, taxes for Lower Township residents could increase significantly. Lower Township Mayor Mike Beck said the quality of the education could also suffer.
“We will mount a vigorous defense,” Beck said. “What we are really talking about is the future of our children. We’d rather use the money to fill potholes, but we are going to have to do it in order to make sure that our school system remains intact.”
The governing body in West Cape May and school boards in all three towns could also decide to do their own study.
Starting Dec. 16, Stepura will have 60 days for his own investigation, looking at enrollment data, the racial composition of the district, operating expenses, property values in the towns, school debt and the effects on educational programs. Stepura will also look at advantages and disadvantages to all three towns.
Stepura’s report will trigger a 30-day period for Cape May to petition the state Department of Education for a ballot question on the issue. There will be an additional 15 days for parties to answer this petition.
The potential ballot question then goes to the four-member Board of Review, which will determine if the issue goes to voters and the amount of debt each member of the district could assume. At this point, any interested party can call for a public hearing.
The board needs three votes, of the four, for a determination. Any of the three towns, or the school boards, can appeal the board’s decision.
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.
Stepura, however, outlined a wrinkle to the process. The vote can be over withdrawal or dissolution, but it could include other options such as creation of a new school district.
If approved, Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney warned, there is still a long administrative process. It could take years to phase in the changes. If not successful, and Lower Township has many more voters than Cape May, the city plans to take the issue to court.
The district was created more than half a century ago with both junior high and high schools constructed in the Erma section of Lower Township. Even before that, children from the towns were educated together at the old Cape May High School, a building that is now Cape May City Hall.
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