On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Mercer County.
Lora, Michels and Larner.
This appeal concerns an attack upon a portion of the Public School Education Act of 1975 (N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-1 et seq.) which affects the apportionment of contributions by constituent members of regional school districts. More particularly, we are presented with the issue of the validity of a 1976 amendment (L. 1976, c. 21; N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23.1) which implements § 29 of the Public School Education Act of 1975 (N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23) by providing for a gradual phase-in over a five-year period of the § 29 basis of cost-sharing by members of regional school districts.
Section 29 provides that the budget allocations for all purposes for members of regional school districts be apportioned
according to the equalized valuations or ratables in each community.*fn1 This represented a radical departure from the prior method of apportionment of costs upon the basis of per pupil enrollment undertaken by many municipal members of the regional school districts.
In order to ease the impact of this allocation on communities which had previously made contributions by the number of pupils sent to that district, the Legislature adopted the supplement under consideration (N.J.S.A. 18:13-23.1) which provides for a phase-in of the effect of § 29 over a five-year period. It retains the per pupil basis on a partial plan which gradually reduces the portion of contributions for current operating costs and debt service calculated on a per pupil basis from 80% in the 1976-1977 school year to 20% for the year 1979-1980. For all school years thereafter the per pupil basis is terminated and all members of regional school districts are controlled by the ratables basis of N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23.
The several plaintiffs contend that N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23.1 is unconstitutional in light of the rulings of the Supreme Court in the Robinson v. Cahill opinions (Robinson v. Cahill I, 62 N.J. 473 (1973); Robinson v. Cahill II , 63 N.J. 196 (1973); Robinson v. Cahill III , 67 N.J. 35 (1975); Robinson v. Cahill IV , 67 N.J. 333 (1975); Robinson v. Cahill V , 69 N.J. 449 (1976)). They argue that the retention of the per pupil basis for allocation of budget appropriations of regional school districts, albeit on a gradually reduced basis for a maximum period of five years, violates the constitutional mandate which requires the State to provide a thorough and efficient system of education. N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VIII, § IV, para. 1. They urge that the inequality of financial burden in funding the regional school district resulting from the allocation of costs on a per pupil basis
fails to afford an equal educational opportunity for the children of the district as a constitutional minimum under Robinson V, supra , 69 N.J. 449. Additionally, some of the plaintiffs assert unconstitutionality on the ground that the act results in disparity of the tax rates within the regional district (which they equate with a taxing district), in violation of Art. VIII, § I, para. 1(a) of the New Jersey Constitution.
Respondent municipalities contend, on the other hand, that funding of regional school districts on a per pupil basis does not violate the constitutional mandate as construed in the Robinson opinions and, alternatively, that the restraint exercised by the trial judge in denying immediate relief is appropriate under the circumstances.
As far as we can discern, the trial judge held that N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23.1 is unconstitutional because the impact of the retention of the per pupil basis for allocation of costs among members of the regional district results in inequality of taxation and thus inequality of educational opportunity. He based his conclusion in this regard upon the opinion in Robinson V, supra , 69 N.J. 449, which sustained the constitutionality of the Public School Education Act of 1975. He articulated the rationale of the determination in the following excerpt from his oral opinion:
The Court finds all through these decisions the theme that not only should there be sufficient funding for thorough and efficient education, not only should the State guarantee that funding, but that any portion of that funding that the State places in the hands of the local ...