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In re Petition for Authorization to Conduct a Referendum on the Dissolution of Union County Regional High School Dist. No. 1

February 20, 1997

IN RE: PETITION FOR AUTHORIZATION TO CONDUCT A REFERENDUM ON THE DISSOLUTION OF UNION COUNTY REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Education, Board of Review.

Approved for Publication February 20, 1997.

Before Judges Brochin, Kestin and Eichen. The opinion of the court was delivered by Brochin, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brochin

The opinion of the court was delivered by BROCHIN, J.A.D.

Since 1935, the Union County Regional High School District No. 1 has been responsible for providing a high school education for students residing in the six municipalities of Berkeley Heights, Clark, Garwood, Kenilworth, Mountainside and Springfield. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:13-51, the boards of education and governing bodies of five of these municipalities, Berkeley Heights, Clark, Kenilworth, Mountainside, and Springfield, applied to the Union County Superintendent of Schools "to make an investigation as to the advisability of the dissolution of the regional district." Ibid. In accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:13-52, the County Superintendent filed a report which concluded that dissolution was inadvisable. Apparently unpersuaded, the boards of education of Berkeley Heights, Kenilworth, Mountainside, and Springfield, and the governing bodies of Berkeley Heights, Kenilworth and Mountainside petitioned the State Commissioner of Education pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:13-54, "for permission to submit to the legal voters of . . . each constituent district whether the regional district shall dissolve."

The petition for permission to conduct a dissolution election was submitted to a Board of Review chaired by the Commissioner. See N.J.S.A. 18A:13-56. In a brief letter opinion issued November 5, 1995, the board granted the petition and elaborated on the basis of its decision in an "amplification" issued December 13, 1995. The election was held and a majority of voters in the entire regional district and in four out of the six constituent local school districts voted in favor of dissolution.

The Borough of Garwood and the Garwood local board of education have appealed to this court from the decision of the Board of Review which refused to block the election. For the following reasons, we affirm the decision of the Board of Review.

To initiate the process of dissolving a special purpose regional school district, a majority of the constituent local boards of education and a majority of the governing bodies of the municipalities that compose the regional district must first apply to the County Superintendent of Schools. N.J.S.A. 18A:13-51. It is important to note, however, that they do not apply to the Superintendent for permission to dissolve the district. Their application must request the Superintendent "to make an investigation as to the advisability of the dissolution of the regional district." Ibid. (emphasis added). The product of the Superintendent's investigation is a report to be filed with the regional board of education, each of the constituent local boards of education, and the municipal governing bodies. N.J.S.A. 18A:13-52. No statute or regulation requires the report to be filed with the Commissioner of Education or with any other administrative body. The report is not a preliminary decision like that of an administrative law Judge under the Administrative Procedure Act. Cf. N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10 (requiring administrative law Judge to file a "recommended report and decision" with findings of fact and Conclusions of law, which may be adopted as the final decision in a case). The County Superintendent's report is solely his recommendation to the regional and local boards of education and the municipal governing bodies of the district containing

such financial, educational and other information as he may deem necessary to enable said governing bodies and local boards of education and regional board of education to form an intelligent judgment as to the advisability of the proposed . . . dissolution and the effect thereof upon the educational and financial condition of . . . each of the constituent districts in the event of a dissolution . . . .

[N.J.S.A. 18A:13-52]

Once a majority of the local boards of education and a majority of the municipal governing bodies have requested the County Superintendent to "make an investigation as to the advisability of the dissolution of the regional district," any board or governing body can "petition the commissioner for permission . . . to submit to the legal voters of each constituent district whether the regional district shall dissolve." N.J.S.A. 18A:13-54. Whether the County Superintendent has recommended for or against dissolution makes no legal difference. In either event, the Commissioner must submit the petition to the Board of Review, an ad hoc committee whose members are the Commissioner of Education as chairman, a member of the State Board of Education, the State Treasurer or his designee, and the Director of the Division of Local Government Services. N.J.S.A. 18A:13-56. The Board of Review then either grants or refuses the petition for an election at which the voters of the regional district will decide on whether or not it will be dissolved. Ibid.

The basis for the decision of the Board of Review is closely circumscribed. The statute directs that the Board of Review "shall . . . Consent to the granting of the application" or "shall . . . Oppose the same because if the same be granted" and the district is dissolved,

1. An excessive debt burden will be imposed . . . upon any of the constituent districts . . .;

2. An efficient school system cannot be maintained . . . in any of the constituent districts . . ...


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