On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.
J.h. Coleman, Brody and Skillman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Skillman, J.A.D.
This suit challenges the constitutionality of the method of allocation of the costs of regional school districts provided by Chapter 212 of the Laws of 1975. See N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23. Plaintiffs are the Borough of Sea Bright, which is a member of defendant Shore Regional High School District (Shore Regional), and three taxpayers residing in Sea Bright. Defendants are the New Jersey Department of Education, Shore Regional, and the other constituent members of the regional district, which are the Boroughs of West Long Branch, Oceanport and Monmouth Beach.
Plaintiffs contend that the requirement that Sea Bright contribute to the costs of the regional school district based upon its proportion of the total equalized value of property in the district, rather than the percentage of students who are Sea Bright residents, violates both Article VIII, § 1, par. 1 of the New Jersey Constitution (referred to as the "tax clause"), and the equal protection clauses of the New Jersey and United States Constitutions.*fn1 Plaintiffs rely upon the fact that residents of affluent oceanfront municipalities similar to Sea Bright which educate their students through "sending-receiving" relationships are only required to pay the actual costs of that education.
The essential stipulated facts pursuant to which this matter was presented to the trial court are that Sea Bright's share of
the costs of the regional school district for the 1985-1986 school year equalled $12,302 per pupil whereas it would have been required to pay only $5,618 per pupil if it had been assessed pursuant to the formula applicable to sending-receiving relationships. In addition, the stipulated facts reflect that the amounts some sending districts pay to receiving districts based on per pupil costs are dramatically less than what they would be required to pay if they were constituent members of a regional district. For example, Cape May Point paid $3,757 per pupil in 1985-86 to send its students to the Lower Cape May Regional High School District based on a sending-receiving relationship whereas its share of education costs as a member of the regional district would have equaled $67,932 per pupil.
The trial court issued an oral opinion which rejected plaintiffs' challenges to the method of allocating the cost of regional school districts and entered judgment in favor of defendants. The court concluded that the method of funding regional school districts does not violate the tax clause because a regional school district is not a "taxing district" within the intent of that provision. Rather, the taxing district under our system of public school financing is the individual municipality, here Sea Bright, and plaintiffs do not assert any lack of uniformity of taxation within Sea Bright. The court also rejected plaintiffs' equal protection claims, concluding that there is a reasonable basis for the differences in the statutory methods of funding regional school districts and districts operating under sending-receiving relationships. The court noted that "a member of a regional school district . . . has a voice in the operation of the school system both with respect to budget and the election of board members and [is] a participant in the school system" whereas "a sending municipality . . . has no right of participation and [its] relationship to the receiving school is principally a contractual relationship, a payment for services." The court further noted that "[t]he Legislature and the Supreme Court in Robinson-Cahill have both determined that the most equitable basis of sharing school costs is on an equalized
ratable basis." In addition, the court ruled that "Sea Bright has no standing . . . to contest the manner in which sending districts pay for their pupil costs."
We uphold the constitutionality of the statutory method of funding regional school districts and affirm the dismissal of the complaint.
The Tax Clause of the New Jersey ...