Harvey Cedars Sees $60K Hike in Southern Regional Per-Pupil Cost, Leads All LBI Communities

Aug 15, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

The cost of sending students to the Southern Regional School District from Long Beach Island is up over last year, despite a decrease in most LBI tax rates to the regional district, which educates students in grades seven through 12.

“It’s insane,” Bob Danna, a member of the Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association, which has been working hard to resurrect an Island-wide push for a fairer school funding formula, said earlier this week. “It’s all relative. No one escapes it.”

Southern Regional consists of seven constituent members: Stafford Township and the six Island communities of Barnegat Light, Beach Haven, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City. The cost to each municipality to educate its students is based on property value, not actual per-pupil cost. Waretown, which sends its students to Southern Regional as a sending district, pays an annual tuition per student.

Under its 2018-19 budget approved by the nine-member Southern Regional Board of Education, Beach Haven’s tax rate for the upcoming school year will be 26.16 cents per $100 of assessed value, slightly down from this year’s 26.82-cent rate. The borough, which will send 49.5 students between the middle and high schools beginning next month, is slated to pay $109,289 per pupil, an increase of more than $10,000 over last year, to do so. The borough is sending two fewer students than it did last year.

It’s the only Island community to have its own elementary school district. The other five municipalities send their students to the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District before sending students off to Southern Regional Middle School.

For Barnegat Light, the tax rate is 18.97 cents per $100 of assessed value, down from the 2017-18 rate of 20.31 cents. The Island’s northernmost municipality foots the third largest educational bill to educate students at Southern Regional. With just a dozen students attending, the annual per-pupil payment is $158,250 for this school year, according to the figures. It is the only community on LBI to see its annual cost per-pupil decrease; it is down from $165,335.

In Long Beach Township, the tax rate is down, from 26.31 cents to 24.29 cents. The township sends the most students to Southern Regional, with 81 slated to attend during the upcoming school year. That’s a decrease of roughly a dozen from last year and results in a total cost of $235,457 per pupil, up nearly $17,000 from last year. Township homeowners pay the second highest cost per-pupil on the Island.

Surf City’s rate has gone down from 26.53 cents to 25.37 cents. The borough is sending 34 students to the regional schools at a cost of $117,940 per pupil for a more than $5,000 hike above 2017-18. Three fewer borough students are attending Southern Regional in the upcoming school year.

On the Island, Ship Bottom is the only constituent town to see an increase in its tax rate to Southern Regional, up from 23.94 cents to 25.49 cents this year. Homeowners will foot the bill for 55 students, down just two students from last year. The borough will have a per-pupil rate of $60,816, an increase of more than $9,000 over last year.

While Harvey Cedars has seen a decrease in its tax rate to Southern Regional – it’s down from 23.64 cents in 2017-18 to 22.86 cents this year – the borough has seen the largest jump in the per-pupil cost, with a staggering $60,000 increase since last year. With just nine students enrolled, the borough’s cost per-student is $315,570 for the upcoming year and three fewer students are slated to attend the regional school district. It was $255,000 last year.

“When you compare the figures, it’s just unfair,” Danna said. “It’s the way the tax is computed based on New Jersey law.”

With less than 10 percent of the entire student body population, the Island communities carry nearly 80 percent of the school funding burden.

Meanwhile on the mainland, Stafford Township is set to pay $4,600 per pupil for its 2,171.5 students attending the regional school district. The total number of students declined by 20 for the school year, while the cost rose from $4,122 last year. Still, Stafford students account for 90 percent of the entire district population.

Additionally, Stafford has more representation than the Island on the regional school board and more registered voters than all of the Island communities combined. The deck is stacked in their favor, Danna said.

There are three loopholes that could turn things around.

Option 1: Put the question before voters. If more say yes than no, then school funding would be changed, he said. However, with Stafford Township controlling six of nine seats on the regional school board, getting this far isn’t likely.

Option 2: A local government or elementary school board can make a petition to withdraw from the regional school district. Although a referendum is required to make this happen, it occurs at the local level, he said. Stafford Township or the Southern Regional Board of Education would have no influence over this option. A plan for how and where students would be educated in the future is part of the process.

Option 3: Dissolving a regional school district is similar to the withdrawal process, but it requires a majority of the governing bodies and school boards to agree. As long as there are no constitutional issues, the question would go before voters. A majority vote from all communities is required. It also requires a plan for how and where students would be educated in the future.

Conceivably, in the last option, the Stafford Township Elementary School District could become a K-12 district and enter into a sending agreement with the Long Beach Island Consolidated and Beach Haven school districts. If the Island communities agreed to withdraw from Southern Regional, they could enter into a sending agreement as well, according to Vito Gagliardi, the Morris County-based attorney from Porzio, Bromberg and Newman who was tasked more than a decade ago with conducting a feasibility study for Beach Haven and Long Beach Township officials.

That effort didn’t go anywhere because the Island community and its leaders were fractured in what do to next, Gagliardi said when asked about the 2006 study.

“It died on the vine,” he has said. “It was very complicated from a political standpoint.”

Danna said it appears the political climate has changed and most of the elected officials are interested in bringing Gagliardi back to see what could be done.

“The method of calculation is reasonable only when educational resources are comparable,” Danna said, “and that only occurs when the number of students is comparable.”

That clearly isn’t the case on the Island, he said.

“People look here and see a golden goose,” he said. “We lay the golden egg. No one wants to change that.”

But that doesn’t mean Island taxpayers are going to give up, Danna said. The Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association is working with the Joint Council of LBI Taxpayers Associations to move this issue to the head of the class. He expects to discuss the issue in earnest at the Aug. 25 open meeting of the Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association.

“When you don’t get what you’re paying it, it isn’t fair,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a lot of money or not, or it’s a car or a gym membership. It’s unfair.”

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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