Lower Township plans to counter neighboring Cape May’s study on leaving the Lower Cape May Regional School District with a study of its own on why they should stay.
Mayor Mike Beck said he doesn’t like the idea of wasting taxpayer’s money on a study that fights another study funded with taxpayer’s money, but said “we’re going to spend it” because the township has no choice.
Beck said Cape May leaving the district and removing $6.6 million in school taxes, more than one-third of the district’s budget, would have catastrophic effects.
“It would change the school and cause irreparable harm to the township and the entire region down here. My argument is if you hurt the school, you hurt the town. If you hurt the town, you hurt the area. It you hurt the area, you hurt Cape May,” Beck said.
The study will look into how the township supplies the work force that runs the Cape May tourist industry, and many of the city’s government operations, and how that work force is educated at Lower Cape May Regional.
“The study will show impacts on Cape May. It will also look at options for Cape May to save money,” Beck said.
Officials in Cape May have complained for years about a state funding formula based on property values that funds the district, which educates students in grades 7-12 from Lower Township, Cape May and West Cape May.
Until 1975 the cost was apportioned on a per-pupil basis. When it first changed to property values it was not a problem for Cape May, but in recent years real estate values in the city skyrocketed and the number of the city’s pupils fell as young families could not afford to live there. Cape May recently hired an attorney and funded a $48,000 study that found city taxpayers pay 35 percent of the costs at the district but only send 5.4 percent of the students.
The city has explored changing the funding formula or dissolving the school district and ultimately hopes to take the issue to court. First it must exhaust all administrative remedies. That included trying to take the issue to voters in the three towns, but the district’s Board of Education refused to put it on the ballot.
The next step was the study, which was delivered to the Cape May County Superintendent of Schools, an arm of the state Department of Education, on July 11. The city asked interim Executive County Superintendent Richard Stepura to conduct his own investigation on “Cape May’s withdrawal from and/or dissolution of the Lower Cape May Regional School District.”
City Councilman Jack Wichterman, who is leading the fight to save Cape May school tax dollars, said that by statute Stepura has 60 days to issue a report.
Beck, however, argues that Lower Township’s decision to conduct its own study essentially “stops the clock” on the process.
Stepura has called a closed-door meeting for Monday afternoon with elected officials from all three towns, representatives from the school boards in the towns as well as the Lower Cape May Regional board.
“He wants to review the procedures to be followed. He has so much time to do a study, but he’ll give us the opportunity to do our own feasibility study,” Beck said.
Stepura on Friday referred calls to Justin Barra, a spokesman for the state DOE, who said the first step in the process is the local studies.
“Once (Stepura) receives all of the feasibility studies, he will create a report that analyzes the educational, financial, administrative and operational effect on the respective parties, as well as the cost savings or increases that would take place. Based on that report, the (DOE) commissioner could choose to establish a Board of Review, which would hold meetings with all the affected parties to determine if a referendum for voters should be scheduled. The final step would be a local vote by the community,” Barra said.
Wichterman said his understanding is a Lower Township study could lengthen the process by another 90 days. He also does not expect a public vote to bring Cape May any relief because residents of Lower Township would vote it down. Wichterman noted the city’s study found out that each $1 million in savings to Cape May would increase the average tax bill in Lower Township by $85. The average tax bill in Cape May would decline by $179 for each $1 million.
“If I was Mike Beck, I’d be doing what he is doing. I’d be fighting it,” Wichterman said.
Beck, a retired school teacher, is taking the argument beyond financial aspects. He argues any money spent on education is money well spent.
“I didn’t start this fight, but I’m going to protect the kids until the cows come home. They need to have a quality education and the region needs a good regional school,” Beck said.
Wichterman said “nothing will be solved” at Monday’s meeting but administrative remedies must be exhausted before a lawsuit can be filed. He noted several other towns have won court cases to reduce their share of the budget at regional schools.
The issue got testy in recent weeks after Wichterman said he did not “give a damn” about the people of Lower Township. He has since downplayed the statement.
“I’m not pleased with my choice of words,” Wichterman said.
Beck, who once taught school in Cape May, has been critical of Cape May in the past, such as when the city fought Lower Township getting a state water allocation and also for the city’s stance against unemployment for part-time workers, but he is praising city residents.
“I respect the residents of Cape May. I consider them cousins,” Beck said.
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