By DON STINE
A state Appellate Court has ruled the April 4 election allowing Loch Arbour residents to vote on whether they want to leave the Ocean Township school district can take place as scheduled.
The state Superior Court, Appellate Division rejected an Ocean Township motion to obtain an injunction to prevent the ballot from moving forward. The appeal challenged state Department of Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington’s Feb. 24 decision to allow the election.
“(The court) preserved the principle that a citizen’s right to vote is an essential foundation of this nation’s democratic traditions when it refused Ocean BOE’s attempt to prevent an election from taking place on April 4,” Loch Arbour Mayor Paul V. Fernicola said.
Harrington set April 4 as the date for the special referendum that will ask villagers to vote on this question: “Should the Village of Loch Arbour withdraw from the Ocean Township School district and form a separate school district which would enter into send-receive relationships with the West Long Branch School district for grades K-8 and Shore Regional School district for high school?”
The ballot will likely be approved since it would radically lower the school tax rate for the average home in Loch Arbour by about $11,700 annually but may increase it in Ocean Township by about $200 for a house assessed at $400,000. Ocean Township would lose about $2.1 million in annual revenue from Loch Arbour.
“It’s time for the Ocean BOE to recognize the Village of Loch Arbour’s right to self-govern and abandon this costly appeal thereby saving both towns from needlessly spending additional monies on attorneys,” Fernicola said.
He said that if Loch Arbour votes to withdraw its 14 students currently enrolled in the Ocean Township school district, then the remaining 3,500 students in the district will be all Ocean Township residents.
“It is fair and reasonable to expect Ocean Township residents to pay the costs for a school district exclusively attended by Ocean Township residents,” he said.
But Ocean Township school officials said they will continue to challenge the ballot question, with Business Administrator Kenneth Jannarone saying that allowing a ballot to remove Loch Arbour from the school district is a bad decision by both Harrington and the court.
“I think this is a very sad day in New Jersey for education. I think these rulings are setting a dangerous precedent that creates a scenario where affluent communities become tax havens against supporting public education,” he said.
“Where else in New Jersey can you live and not pay school taxes based on the assessed valuation of your home? We are talking about affluent communities creating an inequity with other communities. I am sure adult communities would love to pay school taxes based on the number of students they send,” he said.
Ocean Township Superintendent of Schools James Stefankiewicz said that such school tax arrangements are “sweet deals, Cadillac deals.”
He said that the school board still has a case pending in the Appellate Court challenging Harrington’s original decision, posted on Dec. 22 of last year, allowing Loch Arbour to have the special ballot. 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.
“Obviously the school board is very disappointed right now that the stay was not granted, particularly since the final appeals have not been decided,” Stefankiewicz said.
“This case has yet to be heard. How can you allow a referendum when an appeal is still taking place? Why not wait until the case is completely litigated and then have a vote?” he said.
Stefankiewicz said that everything would basically go back to square one if the court rules in favor of the school board.
“Why have a referendum now when it could ultimately be reversed?” he said.
He said that the school board will get more information and weigh its options right now, particularly over any future $200 school tax increase for the average homeowner.
“There are other options on the table that are being considered rather than just increasing the school tax rate,” he said.
If voters pass the ballot question, Loch Arbour will form a separate, non-operating school district (one without its own school) and will base the village’s school tax rate on the number of students being sent to the schools rather than solely on property values, as is now the case.
Right now Loch Arbour residents pay about $145,000 to educate each of its 14 students in Ocean Township schools while it costs about $16,500 to educate each Ocean Township student. Fernicola said Loch Arbour’s tuition rate to West Long Branch and Shore Regional will be about $16,000 to $17,000 for each student
The 2008 state School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) 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.