Ship Bottom Reassessments Raise Questions about School Funding

Third-quarter tax bills arrived later than normal, and with it – at least for a third of Ship Bottom residents – an increase in the assessed value of their home. However, it wasn’t the 15 percent boost, for about a $300 increase, that brought Walter Arosemawicz to the borough council meeting last month, at least not entirely. Although he questioned how his home could be assessed higher when it is nearly a quarter of a century older than many of the homes around him, what he really wanted to know was how the reassessment would impact what the borough pays to the Southern Regional School District to educate middle and high school students.

The answer, at least for the moment, is unknown. His question, however, drove home a recent resurgence in the discussion surrounding the inequity of money Island taxpayers send to the regional school district. Southern Regional consists of seven constituent members: Stafford Township and the six Island communities of Barnegat Light, Beach Haven, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City. The cost to each municipality to educate its students is based on property value, not actual per-pupil cost. Waretown, which also sends its students to Southern Regional as a sending district, pays an annual tuition per student.

“We don’t know what our portion to Southern Regional would be,” Councilman Tom Tallon said, noting although about a third of residents saw their home assessments go up, the tax rate decreased by 5 cents. “It’s a complex formula. The pay is disproportionate.”

Stafford sends 2,193 students to Southern Regional, according to figures presented at the meeting. Its residents pay about $9 million annually yet account for nearly 90 percent of the enrollment. The cost per student to its taxpayers is $4,122.

On the Island, Long Beach Township sends the most students to Southern Regional with 93.5, and an annual payment of nearly $20.5 million for less than 4 percent of the enrollment. The cost per student is $218,911, and is the second highest on the Island. Barnegat Light foots the next largest bill with an annual per-pupil payment of $165,335 for 12 students, for a total of a little more than $2 million annually and less than .5 percent of the enrollment, according to the figures. Surf City is fourth on the list with 37 students at $112,311 for a total of $4.1 million annually and 1.51 percent of the enrollment at the regional district.

Beach Haven and Ship Bottom are on the “low” end of the pay scale. Beach Haven, with 47.5 students attending the regional district, pays nearly $95,100 per pupil for a total of $4.5 million annually and 1.94 percent of the enrollment. In Ship Bottom, 53 students at a per-pupil rate of $51,304, for a total of $2.7 million, attend the district. Those students account for 2.17 percent of the enrollment.

That leaves Harvey Cedars, a community less than 1.2 square miles nestled between the Long Beach Township sections of North Beach and Loveladies on the north end of the Island, with a population of 360, and a summer population of 9,900, at the top of the discrepancy list. With 11.5 students enrolled in the regional school district, the borough’s annual payment is $2.9 million for less than .5 percent of the entire student body. The per pupil cost hovers around $255,000. Still, the residents were mostly quiet in 2006 when Long Beach Township Commissioner Ralph H. Bayard and former Beach Haven Mayor Deborah Whitcraft, who also served as a borough representative to Southern Regional, spearheaded a campaign to change school funding.

Rick McDonough, a Ship Bottom resident and an Island representative to the Southern Regional Board of Education, said, “We’re in a unique position” from where the Island was about four years ago when it was sending a larger number of students to the regional district.

“There are three of us (LBI representatives) on the board,” he noted, adding, “We have nothing to do with it (the school funding). We have to go back to voters.”

That is just one of the options discussed at a special forum in June with Morris County-based attorney Vito Gagliardi of the law firm Porzio, Bromberg and Newman. Gagliardi has successfully represented five municipalities, including Seaside Park, Avalon and Stone Harbor, in their quest to amend school funding in their communities. He is not new to the fight here on Long Beach Island and was part of the team that conducted the 2006 feasibility study – funded by Beach Haven and Long Beach Township – to investigate changing the Southern Regional school funding for Island taxpayers.

Remedies Proposed

Option 1: A local government or elementary school board can make a petition to withdraw from the regional school district, and although a referendum is required to make this happen, it occurs at the local level, Gagliardi said. Stafford Township or the Southern Regional Board of Education would have no influence over this option. A plan for how and where students would be educated in the future is part of the process.

Option 2: Dissolving a regional school district is similar to the withdrawal process, but it requires a majority of the governing bodies and school boards to agree. As long as there are no constitutional issues, the question would go before voters. A majority vote from all communities is required. It also requires a plan for how and where students would be educated in the future, he said.

Conceivably, in the latter option, the Stafford Township Elementary School District could become a K-12 district and enter into a sending agreement with the Long Beach Island Consolidated and Beach Haven elementary school districts. If the Island communities agreed to withdraw from Southern Regional, they could enter into a sending agreement as well, according to Gagliardi.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to win the fight,” McDonough said as a Ship Bottom resident and not a member of the Southern Regional school board, noting student enrollment flip flops between the Island and the mainland.

– Reposted from The Sandpaper