LOWER TOWNSHIP - Lower Cape May Regional School District is disputing statements by a Cape May council member who suggests a funding battle will not cause long-term borrowing and budget problems.
Superintendent Christopher Kobik sounded alarms in January about not being allowed to incur debt during Cape May's attempt to leave or dissolve the grade 7 through 12 district, which includes Lower Township, West Cape May and Cape May.
Cape May last year submitted a petition with the state Department of Education to leave the district, starting a process that is likely to lead to a public vote or a court case on the issue.
Kobik said that under state statutes the district can't borrow money to do projects until the process is resolved, but, more significantly, the loss of debt service over time will shrink the budget and affect educational programs. With state-mandated caps on spending and tax levies, it makes it hard to increase a shrinking budget in the future, he said.
At a recent City Council meeting, Cape May Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman downplayed the problem, arguing the district can incur debt as soon as Cape May County Interim Executive County Superintendent Richard Stepura reads feasibility studies from the two towns and makes a decision on where to direct the initiative. Stepura is expected to make a decision sometime in March.
Kobik, however, points to a state statute that states a district shall not incur any additional indebtedness pending "the rejection of the proposal at a special school election" or until the state commissioner of education establishes a withdrawal date for Cape May leaving the district.
Kobik said Wichterman's statements contradict the applicable regulatory authority and the directives from the state.
"Wichterman said as soon as the Cape May County superintendent makes a decision we can bond. Clearly, that's not the case. It's inaccurate," Kobik said.
Wichterman, however, said his statements were based on previous cases where towns have tried to leave regional school districts. He expects Stepura to make a decision that results in Cape May going to court, and with such cases often dragging on for years, the district would be allowed to incur debt.
"They can't hold them up for as long as we might be in court with the problem," said Wichterman. "We feel the county super will reject our plea because they historically do that. They don't let it get to a vote. If it goes to a vote, they can't incur debt until after that vote. "
Kobik said the issue is already having negative effects and putting "an immediate burden on the students." He said the budget being sent to the state in March retires $262,000 in debt and it is not being renewed even though there are projects at the high school and junior high school that need to be done.
"Right now, we have major projects to undertake to ensure the integrity of our schools. These include repairing and replacing our roofs, fixing our plumbing and repairing windows in our buildings. In the meantime we must spend money on temporary repairs. These funds are coming from the operating budget and leaving less for student programs," Kobik said.
Cape May officials, including Wichterman, have said the goal is not necessarily to leave the district but to bring about changes to the funding formula for the district. It is currently based mostly on property values in the three towns and Cape May pays about one-third of the budget but supplies less than six percent of the students.
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