Southern Regional School Funding Relief for Islanders Could Be a Decade Away

By GINA G. SCALA | Jun 14, 2017

New Jersey school funding + regional school districts + high property values = unfair. It’s a formula so disproportionate it drew a nearly standing-room-only crowd to the Harvey Cedars Bible Conference chapel June 8 for a meeting to bolster a decades-old fight to change school funding for the Southern Regional School District. The meeting was hosted by the Joint Council of Taxpayers Association of Long Beach Island.

“New Jersey is a mess,”  Morris County-based attorney Vito Gagliardi of the law firm Porzio, Bromberg and Newman said as he opened the two-hour meeting. “And if you’re a member of a regional school district, it’s a bigger mess.”

Throw in high property values, the New Jersey born and bred Gagliardi said, and it’s the worst kind of mess.

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 also sends its students to Southern Regional as a sending district, pays an annual tuition per student.

“It’s a ridiculous structure,” Gagliardi said, noting Stafford Township pays less than 20 percent of the costs associated with the school district, which educates students in grades seven through 12, but it holds a majority of the seats on the nine-member school board.

Gagliardi has successfully represented five municipalities, including Seaside Park, Avalon and Stone Harbor, in their quest to amend school funding in their communities. He is not new to the fight here on Long Beach Island and was part of the team that conducted the 2006 feasibility study – funded by Beach Haven and Long Beach Township – to investigate changing the Southern Regional school funding for Island taxpayers.

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 said. “It was very complicated from a political standpoint.”

The disparity for funding the Southern Regional School District is staggering, the attorney said. Long Beach Island homeowners pay between $51,000 and $254,000 to educate a student at Southern Regional even though less than 10 percent of the students reside on the Island.

Stafford sends 2,193 students to Southern Regional, according to figures presented at the meeting. It pays about $9 million annually yet accounts for nearly 90 percent of the enrollment. The cost per student is $4,122.

On the Island, Long Beach Township sends the most students to Southern Regional with 93.5, and an annual payment of nearly $20.5 million for less than 4 percent of the enrollment. The cost per student is $218,911, and is the second highest on the Island. Barnegat Light foots the next largest bill with an annual cost per pupil payment of $165,335 for 12 students, for a total of a little more than $2 million annually and less than .5 percent of the enrollment, according to the figures. Surf City is fourth on the list with 37 students at $112,311 for a total of $4.1 million annually and 1.51 percent of the enrollment at the regional district.

Beach Haven and Ship Bottom are on the “low” end of the pay scale. Beach Haven, with 47.5 students attending the regional school district, pays nearly $95,100 per pupil for a total of $4.5 million annually and 1.94 percent of the enrollment. In Ship Bottom, 53 students at a per-pupil rate of $51,304, for a total of $2.7 million, attend the regional school district. Those students account for 2.17 percent of the enrollment.

That leaves Harvey Cedars, a community less than 1.2 square miles nestled between Long Beach Township and Barnegat Light on the north end of the Island, with population of 360, and a summer population of 9,900, at the top of the discrepancy list.

With 11.5 students enrolled in the regional school district, the borough’s annual payment is $2.9 million for less than .5 percent of the entire student body. The per pupil cost hovers around $255,000. Still, the residents were mostly quiet in 2006 when Long Beach Township Commissioner Ralph H. Bayard and former Beach Haven Mayor Deborah Whitcraft, who also served as a borough representative to Southern Regional, spearheaded a campaign to change school funding.

“I think everyone knew about it but didn’t focus on it until they saw the outrageous figures,” Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association President Michael Songer said before the June 8 meeting. “They think let the people with the money pay for it. The $4,000 in Stafford isn’t the same percentage of home and land value as what we pay in Harvey Cedars.”

Bob Danna, an associate trustee and “the money guy,” agreed, saying what people fail to realize “is that a lot of homeowners are now over 65 and retired.”

Looking at
The Options

Nearly everyone in attendance agreed something needs to give, and Gagliardi was tasked with breaking down three somewhat complicated ways changing the school funding formula can be accomplished in New Jersey. There is a fourth way, the court system, but before it gets that far all of these options must be exhausted, he said.

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

Option 2: A local government or elementary school board can make a petition to withdraw from the regional school district, and 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, he said.

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, he said.

“You would pay only per pupil,” Gagliardi said. “Nothing would change; the only real change is to the taxpayers.”

That might happen in a perfect world, but the world is far from perfect, he acknowledged.

“I am not the smartest guy in the room,” Gagliardi said, “but Stafford has more voters than all the other towns.”

Songer agreed, saying he expected the issue to go to court. “And I expect we will win.”

Before that can happen, Gagliardi said, all other administrative remedies would need to be exhausted.

“It’s why it takes so long,” he said, adding some of his previous cases took nearly a decade before taxpayers saw any relief. It depends on whether both sides are playing nice.

Considering
The Concerns

What if Stafford Township decides to boycott Long Beach Island? It was a concern heard again and again before, during and after the meeting. The communities are separated by a 4-mile Causeway but the Island relies on the mainland for builders, contractors, heating, plumbing and healthcare among many other things. Some Island business owners live in Stafford, and visitors from the mainland boost the local economy, even in the busy summer months.

“When we look at it,” Gagliardi said in an attempt to calm nerves, “the school district doesn’t lose a cent and the (per-pupil cost to the) average assessed home (in Stafford) will increase between $60 and $70 annually. It’s not going to be a $4,000 increase. It impacts a lot less than you think.”

Using an example from Union County, Gagliardi said the contention reached epic peaks, but in the end “the positive dwarfed whatever bad feelings there were, and they faded quickly.”

With that being said, he doesn’t believe any attempt by Island taxpayers to change school funding at Southern Regional would be embraced by their counterparts on the mainland.

“I expect it to be adversarial,” he said. “The era of school budgets going out for vote is over. You will pay the majority of the money for them to stop you.”

What Are
Next Steps?

Gagliardi, who hasn’t been asked to meet with local officials, told taxpayers not every community has to agree to move ahead, but the six communities have every reason to work together.

“If  you’re going to do this,” he said, “I urge you to start soon. If you had done this eight years ago, you would be in a very different position now.”

Long Beach Township Commissioner Joseph Lattanzi, who attended the meeting, said township officials are very enthusiastic about moving forward.

“We’re interested in pursuing options,” he said.

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

 

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