CAPE MAY — City Council wants a ballot referendum asking voters to change the funding formula in the Lower Cape May Regional School District from one based mostly on property values to one based on enrollment.
The city is in the school district along with Lower Township and West Cape May. In recent years, the city’s number of students declined and its funding share increased, due in part to escalating property values at the shore.
A resolution asking for the referendum, passed unanimously by council Tuesday, said city taxpayers pay the equivalent of $72,074 per pupil for the 85 students they send to the schools, which include a junior high and high school handling grades 7 through 12. In contrast, the resolution said, Lower Township taxpayers pay $7,753 for each student they send.
The resolution said the district was set up in 1956 with the costs apportioned based on enrollment from the three towns, but in 1975 the state Legislature changed the formula to one based mainly on real estate values. The law was changed in 1993, but only for new districts being created. They could use per-pupil costs, property value, or a combination of the two.
On Tuesday, the council hired Vito Gagliardi, of the Morristown, Morris County, law firm Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, to fight for the formula change. One of the strategies is to get the issue before a judge. Before that can be done, Gagliardi said, all other remedies must be exhausted, including asking for a referendum.
The referendum must be approved by a Board of Education that includes mostly members from Lower Township, and they are not likely to approve something that would cost their residents more money. The enrollment formula could greatly increase taxes for Lower Township residents.
“Seven members of the board reside in Lower Township. They’re not going to want to conduct a referendum. And even if it did go to referendum, it won’t pass. However, it’s one of the steps we have to do,” said Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman.
The city fought the formula before, originally hiring Gagliardi in 2004. The lone Cape May representative on the board then, the late Bill Nelson, made a motion to bring it to referendum, but nobody would second the motion. West Cape May also pays a high per-pupil share, but even its lone representative on the board, William Towns, did not second the motion.
The city is hoping West Cape May’s representative today, Kathy Elwell, will second the motion this time.
But it isn’t even a sure thing that Cape May’s representative, Gary Gilbert, will make the motion.
“This same attorney tried it before and it didn’t work. I’d have to get some education on it before I decide. I’d like to know more about it,” Gilbert said on Wednesday.
Elwell also recalled the previous attempt. She said she might second the motion, but if it doesn’t do any good, “What is the point?”
“As I understand it, it’s never going to happen. Even if the board passes it, it has to go to the taxpayers, and the people in Lower will never vote for it,” Elwell said.
Board President Richard Hooyman recalled the last attempt being dropped after nobody would second the motion.
“It’s not beneficial to the residents of Lower Township. Somebody would have to pick up the difference,” Hooyman said.
The district, however, has pledged to help Gagliardi to assemble the information he needs to conduct a feasibility study, which council agreed to fund for $48,000 on Tuesday. A meeting is set up with district officials on Dec. 17.
“We’ll provide the information we have to provide. We did it before,” said Superintendent Jack Pfizenmayer.
Kerri Wright, an attorney working with Gagliardi, said if a referendum is approved, the board would develop the ballot question in consultation with the county’s superintendent of schools.
If it is not approved, Wright said, the next step would be to ask for a referendum on dissolving the district or having Cape May leave it. Wright said the feasibility study will identify which remedy to exhaust next.
Wichterman said the city is willing to compromise by creating a funding formula that takes into account both enrollment and property values.
“There could be a compromise of one-third property values and two-thirds kids in school,” said Wichterman said.
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