UPPER TOWNSHIP — A longstanding dispute between Ocean City and Upper Township school boards over transparency and School Choice is at the center of a new lawsuit being filed by Upper Township, school officials said Monday.
Upper Township school officials say they now believe that the alleged investigation by Ocean City School District into some of its members stemmed from a desire to keep Upper’s voting representatives in the dark.
“Upper Township board members on the Ocean City Board of Education had information that the (Ocean City) administration apparently believed they shouldn’t have had,” Upper Township School District solicitor Will Donio said at Monday’s board meeting.
Upper Township continues to examine the alleged investigation into some of its board members in 2015. Upper officials said the search occurred during Ocean City’s investigation into former Ocean City High School Athletic Director and Vice Principal Christine Lentz, of Upper Township.
Donio said several Open Public Record Act requests from Upper Township to the Ocean City School District were wrongly denied, and the district will file a lawsuit in Cape May County Superior Court.
The Ocean City Board of Education has denied any wrongdoing. Ocean City Solicitor Mike Stanton was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
Upper Township students in grades nine through 12 attend Ocean City High School through an agreement that dates back to the 1920s. Because about half of Ocean City High School students are from Upper, state regulations afford Upper three voting representatives on the Ocean City Board of Education.
Citing transcripts of interviews between the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and Ocean City School Superintendent Kathleen Taylor from July 6, 2015, Donio said that Taylor told detectives she believed certain Upper Township voting representatives had information that they shouldn’t have had on the School Choice Program and on her contract negotiations.
“The need for that to be so absolutely locked down, sealed up and hidden from this Board of Education is troubling to this board,” Donio said, adding that it is the basis for the district’s current petition against Ocean City filed in early 2016 with the Commissioner of Education.
The interview between the Prosecutor’s Office and Taylor occurred just after Lentz’s resignation from the district and before Lentz was charged with hacking Taylor’s email to get a leg up on contract negotiations. She was acquitted of the charges this fall.
Before charges were brought against Lentz, Upper Township was already involved in a disagreement with Ocean City over School Choice participation. In 2014, Ocean City decided not to allow anymore Choice students into the district from Upper Township’s School Choice program, citing fears that the program would eventually go unfunded by the state and Ocean City would be on the hook for the tuition of the Choice students.
Upper Township claimed that the decision put its own School Choice program in jeopardy, as K-8 students attending Upper would want to continue on with their class to Ocean City High School instead of returning to their home district.
Upper Township school board President Michele Barbieri said Monday that the board is not taking the charges lightly.
“But we are charged with representing the Upper Township community, our taxpayers and our staff and students,” Barbieri said. “We fought for a lot of years to have three voting representatives on the Ocean City Board of Education.”
Barbieri said the simple solution to the whole situation would be to sit down and discuss it.
“If there’s an issue that has to be worked on, let’s,” she said. “We have been shut down, the door has never opened, and we have been refused.”
This story is developing, check back for updates.