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Board of Education of Township of Fairfield v. Kean

Decided: September 28, 1982.


Stanton, J.s.c.


[188 NJSuper Page 245] The principal plaintiff is a local school district which challenges the formula used by the Legislature to reduce minimum state aid to local school districts by $14,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1983. A second intervening school district and various local school officials are the remaining plaintiffs. Defendants are the Governor, various Executive Branch officials and departments, and various legislative officers and bodies. Plaintiffs claim that the reduction violates the State Constitution's thorough and efficient education requirement (N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VIII, ยง IV, par. 1), the "Equal Protection Clause" of the State Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Strictly speaking, there is no equal protection clause in the New Jersey Constitution. Presumably, plaintiffs are referring to equal protection concepts embodied in the Rights and Privileges Article of the State Constitution. See N.J. Const. (1947) Art. I, Par. 1 and 5.)

At the conclusion of oral arguments I dismissed the complaint as it related to the legislative officers and bodies on the ground that they are not appropriate parties. I now grant the motion for summary judgment which has been brought by the Attorney General on behalf of the remaining defendants. There are no disputed issues of material fact in this case. The challenged legislation is clearly valid. There will be judgment in favor of defendants on all issues raised in the complaint.

The constitutional issues involved in the New Jersey system for financing public education have been exhaustively set forth by our Supreme Court in the five Robinson v. Cahill decisions: 62 N.J. 473 (1973), 63 N.J. 196 (1973), 67 N.J. 35 (1975), 69 N.J. 133 (1975) and 69 N.J. 449 (1976). There is no point in any extensive discussion of those issues by a trial court judge. In the first Robinson v. Cahill decision, 62 N.J. 473 (1973), the Supreme Court held that the New Jersey system for financing public education violated the state constitutional provision requiring the Legislature to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools. The vice of the system, as seen by the Supreme Court, was that it relied too heavily on local taxation. A wealthy school district with substantial real estate tax ratables per pupil could readily afford large expenditures per pupil, while a poor district did not have the tax revenues available for adequate per pupil funding of education. The result was a wide disparity in expenditures per pupil, depending upon the local school district in which the pupil happened to reside.

None of the Robinson v. Cahill decisions required the State to take over all funding of public education, and none of them required strict equality in per pupil expenditure throughout the State. I think it can fairly be said that the end result of the decisions was that the State was required to spend more money raised through statewide general taxes (as contrasted with local property taxes) on public education; that the State had to guarantee that every child in the State received a fundamentally adequate education, and that substantial revenues raised by

the State had to be committed to reducing the disparity in per pupil spending between wealthy and poor districts.

The Public School Education Act of 1975, N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-1 et seq., was adopted by the Legislature after the fourth Robinson v. Cahill decision, 69 N.J. 133 (1975). It represented a monumental effort by the Legislature to deal comprehensively with its obligations under the thorough and efficient education clause of the State Constitution. Key financial provisions of the act are found in N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-18. The basic thrust of N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-18, as set forth in subsection (a) thereof, was to direct heavy state aid for current expenses of local school districts to those districts which had low property tax ratables per student. A secondary thrust, as set forth in subparagraph (b) thereof, was to give some minimum state aid for current expenses to every local school district in the State. The Supreme Court had been very critical of minimum aid concepts in the fourth Robinson v. Cahill decision. See 69 N.J. 147-150. Nevertheless, in the fifth Robinson v. Cahill decision the court accepted the kind of minimum aid provided in N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-18(b) because it was part of a scheme which seemed to make significant progress towards eliminating gross disparities in per pupil expenditures.

The court expressed its views on minimum aid in these terms:

In Robinson IV we ordered the reallocation of educational funds which were to be appropriated for minimum aid on a per pupil basis to the end that the average valuation per pupil throughout the State would more nearly be equalized. However, we did not hold that minimum aid was per se unconstitutional. We found it improper in the light of the gross disparities in per pupil expenditures and tax resources existing in the school funding program there under review.

The 1975 Act continues to make some provision for minimum aid upon a per pupil basis; but, when viewed in the context of the overall act which, as heretofore noted, has taken positive steps to eliminate gross disparities in per pupil expenditures and tax resources, such provision cannot be said to be unconstitutional. Only actual experience with the Act will demonstrate whether there is need for further adjustment or modification. [69 N.J. at 467]

Chief Justice Hughes and Judge Conford were obviously perturbed by the minimum aid provisions of the 1975 act. See the concurring opinion of Chief ...

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