On appeal from final decision of State Board of Education.
Seidman, Michels and Devine. The opinion of the court was delivered by Seidman, P.J.A.D.
The Board of Education of the Township of Branchburg (Branchburg) appeals from the final decision of the State Board of Education (State Board) affirming the denial by the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) of Branchburg's request to terminate the sending-receiving relationship with the Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville (Somerville).
For many years Branchburg has sent its high school students to Somerville under a sending-receiving relationship formalized in 1956 by a written agreement. Although the written agreement ended in 1965, the relationship continued pursuant to
N.J.S.A. 18A:38-13. Prior to the opening of its newly constructed high school in 1970, Somerville notified Branchburg that because of projected student enrollment the sending-receiving relationship should be terminated. At a meeting of both boards in September 1970 a target commencement date of 1975 was set for the phasing out of Branchburg students from Somerville. But in May 1971 Somerville informed Branchburg that it would be "mutually desirable" to reconsider the target date because "with total utilization of our new facility even with projected growth, we can continue to service the students of Branchburg and furnish fine education well beyond the original date of withdrawal."
Prior to May 1971 Branchburg had undertaken the planning of its own high school, purchasing a 76-acre tract for that purpose. However, a $5,210,000 bonding proposal to enable the construction of a high school with a capacity of 950 students was defeated by the Branchburg voters at a referendum held in December 1972. Branchburg subsequently commissioned various professional studies and formed several community groups, leading to recommendations in May 1975 that the contemplated high school was still Branchburg's best alternative. Although the high school remained in the planning stage and had not been approved by the Branchburg voters, Branchburg filed a petition with the Commissioner in September 1975 for severance of the sending-receiving relationship.
Testimony pro and con was presented to a hearing examiner on eight days between March 26 and June 15, 1976. The hearing examiner issued his report to the commissioner in February 1977. He concluded that "the 'positive benefits' which would accrue if severance were granted are outweighed on balance by serious and compelling reasons of education and financial importance . . .," and recommended that the petition be dismissed. The conclusion was based upon that which the hearing examiner considered to be the "primary facts" developed at the hearing: the present Somerville high school is a "good, perhaps
superior, school" offering a well-rounded educational program to all students; the present pupil population of about 1250 in Somerville is an "almost ideal number"; though "technically" overcrowded, the pupil population is managed well; the financial impact of severance on both school districts would be "of great significance"; severance would result in the necessity to maintain two small high schools with limited programs and reduced educational opportunities, and factors of racial imbalance were of "more than minimal significance."
After reviewing the report and considering the exceptions, objections and replies filed by Branchburg and Somerville, the Commissioner denied the application for severance. He viewed the controversy "as one with contested facts and disputed conclusion embracing a legal argument grounded on the passage of a comprehensive legislative enactment designed to insure a thorough and efficient educational program for all pupils." The question to be resolved was whether "such severance would be in the best interests of both the Branchburg and Somerville Boards in the joint desire of the Boards to provide an appropriate program of education for all of their high school pupils." He deemed a "key component" to be whether a "'breadth of program' mandated as necessary by the Public School Education Act could be maintained by the Board at a time subsequent to severance." He noted the hearing examiner's conclusion that it could not without increased expenditures and higher per pupil costs.
The Commissioner stressed the factor of school size, concluding that a student population below 800 was undesirable, and that this figure would not be reached in Branchburg (assuming a four-year high school) in the near future. While cognizant that "program articulation" would be enhanced for Branchburg pupils by severance, and that there was "no opportunity in such relationship for an effective ...