CAPE MAY - City Council voted Tuesday for an investigation into leaving the Lower Cape May Regional School District, possibly dissolving a district that has served Cape May, Lower Township and West Cape May for more than five decades.

The 5-0 vote is the latest move in a decade-long fight against what city officials argue is a financial inequity in the way the regional grades 7-12 district is funded. A state funding formula based on property values has the city paying

35 percent of the costs, but only sending 5.4 percent of the students.

"Under the formula used now we pay $6.6 million a year to educate about 65 students," Councilman Jack Wichterman said.

A resolution council approved at the afternoon meeting asks the Cape May County Superintendent of Schools, an arm of the state Department of Education, to do the investigation.

Wichterman said it is merely one of the steps required before going to court over the issue. He expects that to occur eventually, but he said the city was willing to negotiate changes to the funding formula that would put less weight on property values and base it partly on student enrollment from the three towns.

"We should be sitting down and talking instead of letting the lawyers make money," Wichterman said.

Lower Township Mayor Mike Beck said the township will fight any attempt by Cape May to change the funding formula. One study indicates Lower Township taxpayers could see huge increases in their school tax bills if the formula is based on students sent by each town, instead of on property values.

"It would cost us $5.5 million in increased taxation per year for our people, and this doesn't even include West Cape May. It's not going to happen on our watch. We will match them lawyer for lawyer; we will match them dollar for dollar," Beck said.

Cape May has tried several times to bring the issue to voters in the three towns, but the Board of Education for the district would not put the issue on the ballot. The city hired attorney Vito Gagliardi, who specializes in such cases, and commissioned a feasibility study on the issue. The study found that Cape May residents pay $79,977 per year for each student sent to the school, compared to $7,663 each in Lower Township and $30,493 per student from West Cape May.

The district was set up in 1956 and funding was based on the number of pupils each town sent then.

Beck says Cape May did not complain in the early 1970s, when the state formula changed to base funding on property values, because at that time much of the student body came from Cape May. He said enrollment has risen by 75 percent in the township and declined by 75 percent in Cape May since then.

Beck said if Cape May enrollment had continued to rise at the same rate as the township the city would be sending 437 students today instead of 65. Beck blames rising property values along the coast that have driven young families to the mainland.

"The Pied Piper came to the City of Cape May and took their kids away, and the Pied Piper's name was increased property values. It's not our fault their kids left town, and it doesn't negate their responsibility for regional education," Beck said

The study Cape May commissioned, which was completed earlier this month, presented a number of options including:

•Withdrawing from the district but entering a sending-receiving relationship with it.

•Withdrawing and setting up a sending-receiving relationship with another district, such as Middle Township.

•Dissolving the district and having Lower Township form a K-12 district. All three towns would use their own elementary schools and a sending-receiving relationship would be set up for grades 7-12.

•Dissolving the district and having Lower set up a K-12. Cape May would enter a sending-receiving relationship with another district such as Middle Township for grades 7-12.

Council members have had a couple weeks to digest the study, and the option to send students to Middle Township stirred some controversy. On Tuesday council amended the resolution calling for the investigation, adding language that says the city's preference remains for students go to Lower Cape May Regional for grades 7-12.

Tuesday's vote got mixed reviews from the few residents at the meeting. Harry Sundstrom, a Lafayette Street resident and the city's lone representative on the Board of Education, opposed it. Sundstrom agreed the city pays too much, and said he would save about $900 on his own tax bill, but he argued breaking up the district would impact the education of the children and destroy jobs.

Washington Street resident John Fleming supported the move, commending council for trying to stop the "injustices done to the taxpayers."

Wichterman said for each $1 million the city reduces its tax load, the average homeowner in Cape May would save $179. The bill for the average homeowner in Lower Township, he noted, would rise by $85 for each $1 million. The city could save an estimated $5 million if it paid tuition for its students instead of being a member of the district.

"It does not happen at once. It's phased in over a number of years," Wichterman added.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711