Conford, Kilkenny and Leonard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, S.j.a.d.
[91 NJSuper Page 21] This is an appeal from a judgment entered in the Law Division on a complaint filed by the Board of Education of East Brunswick ("board" hereinafter) alleging that the amount of the school budget fixed by the township council ("council" hereinafter) of that municipality for the fiscal year 1966-1967 and proposed to be certified by it to the county board of taxation was inadequate "to provide a thorough and efficient system of schools" in the township. As
requested by the board, Judge Halpern for the Law Division enjoined defendant council from certifying the budget to the county board of taxation and authorized plaintiff to file a petition with the State Commissioner of Education, pursuant to R.S. 18:3-14, to determine the meritorious issues raised.
On this appeal by the council from that action the Attorney General has, at his own request, been made a party and been heard. We have also permitted the filing of briefs amicus curiae by the parties named in the appearances, and these have been considered by the court.
The principal question presented is one of first instance and of considerable importance in an age of rising property taxes notable for the fact that school budgets are being frequently rejected by local voters, presumably as excessive.
The board here is what is known as a "Chapter 7" board of education, and its annual proposed budget is submitted to the voters for approval. R.S. 18:7-78 et seq. If the budget is rejected at the election the board is required to resubmit the same or a reduced budget to the voters at another election to be held within 15 days. R.S. 18:7-81. Upon a second rejection of the budget by the voters the governing body of the municipality is required within ten days after receipt of the proposed budget from the board, and after consultation with the board, to "certify to the county board of taxation the amount or amounts which the governing body * * * determine[s] to be necessary to provide a thorough and efficient system of schools in the district." R.S. 18:7-82. Should the governing body fail to do so within the time limited, the Commissioner of Education is directed to make that determination and certification. R.S. 18:7-83.
In the case at hand there were two rejections by the voters of both the current expenditures budget and the capital outlay budget proposed by the board, which were the same on both occasions. The proposed budget for 1966-1967, excluding debt service, was $5,154,096, an increase of $738,964 over the budget for the prior year. After the second election the council conferred with the board and thereafter made a
timely determination that it would certify $3,967,424 to be raised by taxation, leaving the board with a budget of $4,959,096. The board's proposed budget exceeded that for the previous year by 16.7%, whereas that fixed by the council represented an increase of 12.3%. The council's budget is 3.7% less than that proposed by the board. Prospective school enrollment for 1966-1967 is estimated to be greater than that for the prior fiscal year by about 5.6%.
On this appeal defendant's main contention is that plaintiff's complaint about the reduced budget does not represent a controversy reviewable before the Commissioner of Education within the intent of R.S. 18:3-14, which requires the Commissioner to "decide * * * all controversies and disputes arising under the school laws." (The Commissioner's decision is in turn appealable to the State Board of Education. R.S. 18:3-15.) The Attorney General supports defendant's position in this regard. The burden of their argument is that the unique situation in which under the act a governing body is called upon, on short notice, to certify the amount to be raised by taxation because the voters have twice rejected the budget fixed by the board of education, is one in which the Legislature intends to vest unreviewable discretion in the governing body. The point is made that the time interval between the certification by the governing body of the school budget and the date by which the county board of taxation is required to promulgate a general tax rate for the municipality based, in part, on the certified school budget, is so short that there is no time for a two-fold administrative review of the action of the governing body by the Commissioner and the State Board of Education, and that the Legislature should therefore not be deemed to have intended it.
We do not agree. There are many contingencies in school law and other administrative areas wherein administrative review is provided for actions otherwise regulated by statutory timetables. It must be presumed that the reviewing agency, here the Commissioner of Education, will hear and decide a controversy such as this in an expeditious manner so
as to minimize delay harmful to the primary legislative objective. In the instant case the factor of delay during review is of less importance than ordinarily, since the injunction against certification of the council's budget to the county board of taxation has been vacated by the trial court pending this appeal. (Incidentally, the parties agree that should the council's budget be set aside, there is ample statutory authority to implement any higher budget resulting from the review.) We perceive no basis for a holding that the legislative direction for review by the Commissioner of "all controversies and disputes arising under the school laws" (emphasis ours) means less than what it ...