On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 274 N.J. Super. 211 (1994).
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, O'Hern, Garibaldi, Stein, and Coleman join in this opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
IMO THE PETITION OF THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE TOWNSHIP OF WAYNE V. ARLENE KRAFT ET AL. (A-94-94)
Argued February 15, 1995 -- Decided April 24, 1995
POLLOCK, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue before the Court is whether a walkway is a public thoroughfare within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 18A:39-1 and N.J.A.C. 6:21.1.3 for the purpose of calculating whether the residences of students who use the walkway are more than two miles from their school.
The Board of Education of the Township of Wayne (the local board) decided not to bus certain middle-school students to and from the Schuyler-Colfax School (the school). The local board petitioned the Commissioner of Education for a declaratory judgment that the walkway, known as Smith Lane extension, is a public thoroughfare. If the walkway is not public, the local board would be required to bus the students to the school. If, on the other hand, the walkway is public and is within two miles of the school, the local board need not bus the affected students to the school.
The Commissioner referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL). After a contested hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that the walkway is a public thoroughfare and that students can use it safely. The ALJ noted that there was nothing in the record to show that a hazard existed. The Commissioner affirmed the ALJ's decision, and the State Board of Education (State Board) affirmed the decision of the Commissioner.
On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the decision of the State Board, relying on Board of Educ. v. Bailey, which the court read as holding that "isolated footpaths" are necessarily unsafe. (There was testimony at the hearing before the AU that there is a forty to fifty foot secluded area along the walkway). The court concluded that the decision to include the Smith Lane extension walkway as a public walkway was incorrect for safety reasons.
The Supreme Court granted the local board's petition for certification.
HELD: The Appellate Division should have deferred to the State Board of Education's finding that the Smith Lane extension walkway is as safe as any other sidewalk in the Township of Wayne.
1. Bailey does not compel the Conclusion that merely because some part of a pathway is isolated, the pathway is unsafe as a matter of law. Whether a walkway is safe depends on the surrounding facts. (pp. 6-8)
2. A reviewing court should defer to the findings of an administrative agency if those findings are based on sufficient credible evidence in the record as a whole. Mere disagreement by the reviewing court with the agency's determination does not permit that court to reject the agency's Conclusion. Here, the Appellate Division exceeded the scope of judicial review by failing to defer to the State Board's finding that the Smith Lane extension walkway is as safe as any other sidewalk in the Township. (pp. 8-10)
3. The record amply supports the determination of the State Board that children using the ...