Upper Township Board of Education

Upper Township school board attorney Will Donio, center, updates board members and the public Monday night on its search into Ocean City’s alleged investigation into Upper board members.

UPPER TOWNSHIP — A longstanding dispute between Ocean City and Upper Township school boards over transparency and School Choice is at the center of a new lawsuit being filed by Upper Township, school officials said Monday.

Upper school officials say they now believe the alleged investigation by the Ocean City School District into some of its members stemmed from a desire to keep Upper’s voting representatives in the dark.

The Ocean City Board of Education has denied any wrongdoing. School officials have referred questions regarding the allegations to Ocean City Solicitor Mike Stanton. Stanton was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

“Upper Township board members on the Ocean City Board of Education had information that the (Ocean City) administration apparently believed they shouldn’t have had,” Upper Township School District Solicitor Will Donio said at Monday’s board meeting.

Upper continues to examine the alleged investigation into its board members in 2015. Upper officials said the search occurred during Ocean City’s investigation into former Ocean City High School Athletic Director and Vice Principal Christine Lentz, of Upper.

Donio said several Open Public Records Act requests from Upper to the Ocean City School District were wrongly denied, and the district will file a lawsuit in Cape May County Superior Court.

Upper students in grades nine through 12 attend Ocean City High School through an agreement that dates to the 1920s. Because about half of Ocean City High School students are from Upper, state regulations afford Upper three voting representatives on the Ocean City Board of Education.

Citing transcripts of interviews between the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and Ocean City School Superintendent Kathleen Taylor from July 6, 2015, Donio said Taylor told detectives she believed certain Upper voting representatives had information they shouldn’t have had on the School Choice Program and on her contract negotiations.

“The need for that to be so absolutely locked down, sealed up and hidden from this Board of Education is troubling to this board,” Donio said, adding it is the basis for the district’s current petition against Ocean City filed in early 2016 with the commissioner of education.

The interview between the Prosecutor’s Office and Taylor occurred just after Lentz’s resignation from the district and before Lentz was charged with hacking Taylor’s email to get an advantage on contract negotiations. She was acquitted of the charges this fall.

Before charges were brought against Lentz, Upper was already involved in a disagreement with Ocean City over School Choice participation. In 2014, Ocean City decided not to allow any more Choice students into the district from Upper’s School Choice program, citing fears the program would eventually go unfunded by the state and Ocean City would be on the hook for the tuition of the Choice students.

Upper claimed the decision put its own School Choice program in jeopardy, as K-8 students attending Upper would want to continue on with their class to Ocean City High School instead of returning to their home district.

Upper school board President Michele Barbieri said Monday the board is not taking the charges lightly.

“But we are charged with representing the Upper Township community, our taxpayers and our staff and students,” Barbieri said. “We fought for a lot of years to have three voting representatives on the Ocean City Board of Education.”

Barbieri said the simple solution to the situation would be to sit down and discuss it.

“If there’s an issue that has to be worked on, let’s,” she said. “We have been shut down, the door has never opened and we have been refused.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com

Twitter @clairelowe

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.