Fighting school district dissolution will cost Lower Township

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LOWER TOWNSHIP – The township will have to commission a study on Cape May’s proposal to dissolve or withdraw from the regional school district, officials said this week.

“We don’t have much of a choice,” said Mayor Michael Beck. “The county superintendent needs the information to give his advisability opinion, so we’ve got to provide the rest of the story.

“Yes, we are going to have to retain professionals to represent us in this fight. It is too important to our residents,” he added. “We’d rather use the money to fill potholes but we are going to have to do it in order to make sure that our school system remains intact.”

Members of the governing bodies and boards of education of Lower Township, Cape May and West Cape May met with interim executive county superintendent Richard Stepura on July 22 at county offices in Cape May Court House. The meeting was prompted by Cape May’s request for an “advisability report” from county school officials on its desire to withdraw from or dissolve the school district.

Cape May’s legal team has called the county report one “among several administrative remedies” it must exhaust in its campaign to dismantle the district, which has been in operation since 1956.

Beck said Lower Township has until Dec. 16 to submit its study.

“We’ll be discussing the funding for the study at our next council session,” he said.

Following the submission of Lower Township’s report, the county superintendent has 60 days to issue its recommendations. According to a release from Lower Township, the Lower Cape May Regional Board of Education may also conduct an independent study on the issue.

School board president Richard Hooyman said he would ask the board to authorize a letter to the state Commissioner of Education asking for an extension of time to accommodate such a study. Hooyman said in a statement that the board would need time to issue a request for proposals for preparation of the study and that the school board’s fiscal year began on July 1.

The district had not “reserved money for an attorney to prepare a feasibility study that could cost up to $50,000,” he said.

Late last year, Cape May council approved $48,000 to fund the fight to dissolve the regional district.

After retaining Morristown lawyer Vito Gagliardi late last year, Cape May received the legal team’s feasibility report on withdrawal or dissolution of the school district in June and, at the next meeting, voted to refer the matter to the county for review.

Gagliardi provided a 94-page study recommending the city’s drawback from the regional school district based on the opinions of educational, financial and demographic experts.

“I don’t know what we are going to have to spend, but obviously the Cape May number gives us a ballpark,” said Beck. “All I know is that this is money needed elsewhere, but the regional school is too important to not put up the best defense we can.”

The regional school district funding formula is based on property values, rather than the number of students a district sends. The regional school district was established in 1956, with costs based on enrollment from the three towns – Lower, Cape May and West Cape May. In 1975, the state legislature mandated that costs were to be based on real estate values rather than enrollment.

“In the last five years, Cape May has sent between 70 to 85 students per year to Lower Cape May Regional for grades 7-12,” according to the Cape May report. The same report, drawing on data from the state’s Department of Education, shows a total enrollment of 1,462 students in grades 7-12.

Cape May’s enrollment numbers are boosted by the presence of permanent party U.S. Coast Guard members, whose school age children comprise a significant portion of the Cape May student body.

“Cape May’s wealth is in its property values,” said Beck, “where Lower Township’s wealth is in its children and families. We are trying to protect all of our residents in this fight.”

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