New Jersey’s top state education official recently ruled that Loch Arbour voters can decide if they want to leave the Ocean Township school district, which would result in thousands of dollars of saving for village residents.
In a Dec. 22 letter, acting State Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington wrote “I grant Loch Arbour’s seeking permission to submit a ballot question on withdrawal from (the Ocean Township School District).”
“This is a great day for Loch Arbour after seven years of hard work and perseverance. This decision will bring significant tax relief to property owners and the final step will be for voters to approve it,” Loch Arbour Mayor Paul Fernicola said.
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 he would like to see the issue on a ballot within the next 60 days but that process may be delayed since Ocean Township is expected to appeal Harrington’s decision.
Ocean Superintendent of Schools James Stefankiewicz said earlier this week that the issue “is far from done” and that the school board will appeal Harrington’s decision in the state Appellate Court.
“This issue still has more legs to go. Respectfully, we do not agree with the commissioner’s decision and are looking at our options,” he said.
If the Ocean Township school board loses its appeal, then Loch Arbour residents will be given a ballot question that will ask if they want to leave the Ocean Township school district and become a sending district, on a per-pupil tuition basis, to the West Long Branch Elementary School and to Shore Regional High School.
Harrington, alone, cannot end Loch Arbour’s relationship with the Ocean Township school district, only Loch Arbour voters can do that.
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 $16,000 per student.
“Loch Arbour has been paying 3.6 percent of the Ocean Township School District’s tax levy,” Fernicola said.
Loch Arbour leaving the Ocean Township school district is estimated to increase the school tax rate for township residents by about $166.
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.
On the issue of indebtedness on facilities to be assumed by Loch Arbour to the Ocean Township school district, Harrington wrote that none of the recent upgrades to school facilities are within Loch Arbour and that the withdrawal of its students “is unlikely to render these new additions vacant or under-utilized.”