The Monmouth County School Superintendent set Tues., April 4 for a special election in Loch Arbour to allow voters to decide whether or not the village should withdraw from the Ocean Township school district and begin sending its students to West Long Branch schools for grades kindergarten through eight and to Shore Regional High School.
On Jan. 20 the Loch Arbour Board of Commissioner passed a resolution approving the special election.
Earlier last week Loch Arbour officials received notice that the Ocean Township Board of Education has filed a notice of appeal with the State Appellate Division seeking an injunction to prevent the Loch Arbour ballot from taking place on April 4.
“It is deplorable for the Ocean Township school board to challenge a decision by the State Commissioner of Education to permit Loch Arbour residents to decide where our children are to be educated and to attempt to prevent Loch Arbour residents from voting on this issue on April 4,” Loch Arbour Mayor Paul Fernicola said in a prepared statement.
He said the notice of appeal “is a desperate, mean-spirited and undemocratic effort” by the Ocean Township school board to keep the village’s 14 students in the Ocean Township schools “solely to perpetuate an exorbitant and unfair tax burden on Loch Arbour that has made Loch Arbour one of, if not the most, heavily taxed municipality in the entire state.”
He said Ocean Township seeks to prevent Loch Arbour from voting in April so the village will be forced to continue to pay $143,000 per student to Ocean Township when the district’s actual costs are approximately $16,500 per student.
Ocean Township School Superintendent James Stefankiewicz said the district is basically seeking a stay on the ballot from being presented to voters until all appeals on the matter have been resolved.
“Should Loch Arbour be permitted to proceed with not supporting their public school system this will create a gap in the budget that will need to be addressed by increased taxes for all Ocean township residents and/or decreased educational programs,” the school district said in an earlier prepared statement.
Loch Arbour leaving the Ocean Township school district is estimated to increase the township’s school tax rate for an average home assessed at $400,000 by about $200.
Another important issue that needs to be faced by both Loch Arbour and Ocean Township is what happens to the six village students now attending Ocean Township High School. Would they have to leave? This issue has been raised by Loch Arbour residents with high school-age students in the past.
Stefankiewicz acknowledged it would be a difficult position for students and parents.said.
He said that if Loch Arbour voters eventually approve the ballot then the two school boards would have to sit down and work that matter out.
“We would have to have that conversion but there is not a mechanism right now. We would have to cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.
Stefankiewicz pointed out that Loch Arbour is a part of the Ocean Township school district and not just a sending district.
“It is akin to Wayside residents saying they no longer want to come to Ocean Township schools. Loch Arbour is a separate village but we are still all one school district and we are responsible for all students,” he said.
He said that an arrangement to allow Loch Arbour’s high school students to stay in Ocean Township would have to be approved by both the newly-created Loch Arbour and Ocean Township boards of education and that it is premature right now to discuss how this would work or what it would cost.
“We would have to have a long conversation about these kids which is why a stay on the ballot question is really important,” he said.
In a Dec. 22 letter, acting State Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington said she is granting Loch Arbour permission to submit a ballot question on withdrawal from the Ocean Township school district. Harrington, alone, cannot end Loch Arbour’s relationship with the Ocean Township school district, only Loch Arbour voters can do that.
Harrington’s decision was in response to a petition filed by Loch Arbour in November, 2015 requesting the village be allowed to set up its own independent school district. If the ballot is eventually voted upon, it is extremely likely that Loch Arbour residents will approve it since it will vastly reduce their school tax rate while Ocean Township will lose about $2.1 million annually in property tax revenue.
Fernicola said Loch Arbour’s tuition rate will be about $16,000 to $17,000 for each of the village’s 17 students, resulting in an estimated $11,000 to $12,000 annual school tax savings for the average property owner. Loch Arbour’s per-student cost to Ocean Township equates to about $125,000 right now while the cost to township residents is about $17,878.
Harrington’s decision was based on various issues, including its effect on the School Funding Reform Act and Loch Arbour’s indebtedness in Ocean Township.
She wrote that granting the Loch Arbour petition will “not frustrate” any decisions under the 2008 state School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which repealed a longtime agreement that limited Loch Arbour’s contribution to the Ocean Township school district to no more than $300,000 a year. After the SFRA, Loch Arbour property owners saw their annual school tax rise by $1.3 million, or to around $1.6 million.
The village’s school tax bill, now based on property valuation, has risen to about $2.1 million annually and increased village residents taxes by about $15,000 a year on the average home- an increase affecting some resident’s ability to continue to live in their home, especially people on fixed incomes.