CAPE MAY _ City Council on Wednesday voted unanimously to hire an attorney to fight what officials here feel is a funding disparity at the regional school district.

Council agreed to pay Vito Gagliardi $48,000 to study ways to combat the city's high contribution to the Lower Cape May Regional School District, which also educates students from Lower Township and West Cape May.

The move was made as per pupil costs for the city's students have risen from $38,000 in 2004 to more than $82,000 today. The state funding formula bases the contributions largely on property values in the towns that make up a regional district and the city has the highest property values of the three towns.

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Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman, who is spearheading the effort, said he got the idea in January when he was "going over the bill list" and saw a monthly payment to the school district for $610,000. The city only sends 80 students to the 1,550 student district at the grade 7-12 district.

"I thought it was time we did something," Wichterman said.

Gagliardi told council the best way to get relief is to bring the issue to the courts and seek funding formula changes that base payments by the number of students sent, or at least use it as a factor in the equation. He has represented other shore towns that are part of regional districts.

Gagliardi said he represented North Haledon (Passaic County) in a case that went to the state's Supreme Court. He said it resulted in the formula being changed there to 67 percent based on property value and 33 percent based on number of pupils.

Gagliardi, however, said the courts won't hear the case until the city first exhausts other administrative remedies. This includes asking the district for a public referendum to change the funding formula. Since all three towns must approve this, it would never be voted in by residents in Lower Township, which has much lower per pupil costs.

"Request it on the ballot and it exhausts that remedy. It won't pass," he said.

The city must also seek dissolution of the school district, though he said that would never be approved.

"To dissolve, you need a majority in all three towns," said Gagliardi.

When the district was formed more than 50 years ago each town paid based on the number of students. Gagliardi said the state Legislature in 1975 changed it to a formula based mostly on ratables. In 1993 the formula was changed for new districts just being formed, allowing them to base it on the number of pupils, property values, or a combination of the two. Existing districts, however, were told they need approval from all towns in the district to make any changes to the formula they had been using.

Once administrative remedies are exhausted, Gagliardi said the city could lobby the state Commissioner of Education for funding formula changes. He said he argued one such case before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the North Haledon case, and it resulted in the town saving millions of dollars in school taxes.

"There could be substantial savings for Cape May," Gagliardi said.

The first step is a feasibility study that he said would take about three or four months. The entire process could take years.

The formula here, phased in over four years beginning in 1975, is not entirely property values. Gagliardi said a second factor is the ratio of students at the elementary and regional schools in the three towns. He said it would benefit city taxpayers if there were a decline in the number of students sent to Lower Cape May Regional and an increase in enrollment at Cape May Elementary School.

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