Before Judges Baime, Brochin and Wecker.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baime, P.J.A.D.
On appeal from New Jersey State Board of Education.
Our statutes authorize two or more boards of education to establish a jointure commission for the purpose of educating handicapped pupils. N.J.S.A. 18A:46-25 to -28. The novel question presented by this appeal is whether a jointure commission may contract with a participating board of education to provide guidance services to non-handicapped students. We find no statutory authority for the exercise of such a power.
The facts are not in dispute and are essentially a matter of public record. Loretta Colantoni was a tenured teacher and guidance counselor employed by the Long Hill Board of Education. From 1990 to 1993, Colantoni was assigned as a guidance counselor for grades five through eight. In 1994, the Long Hill Board eliminated the position of guidance counselor for budgetary reasons. Colantoni was reassigned as a full-time classroom teacher.
In 1995, the Long Hill Board decided that part-time guidance services were necessary. The Board contracted with the Morris- Union Jointure Commission Board of Education (Commission) to obtain guidance services for sixteen hours a week to both handicapped and non-handicapped students. We digress to note that the Long Hill Board asserts in its brief the guidance services rendered by the Commission were predominantly for the benefit of special needs students. The record does not support that conclusory allegation which is, in any event, irrelevant because the legal question presented is whether the Commission was empowered to provide services to non-handicapped students. We will return to this issue later in our opinion.
Colantoni filed a petition with the Commissioner of Education. She alleged that the Long Hill Board violated her tenure and seniority rights when it eliminated her position as guidance counselor and contracted with the Commission for the provision of guidance services. *fn1 The matter was referred to the Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. On October 18, 1996, an administrative law judge found that Colantoni was not entitled to any relief. The ALJ determined that a board of education could eliminate the position of guidance counselor and enter into a contract for the provision of guidance services. However, she further concluded that a jointure commission's statutory authority was limited to providing educational services to handicapped pupils. To the extent to which the contract between the Long Hill Board and the Commission required the provision of guidance services to non-handicapped students, the agreement was found to be illegal.
The Commissioner adopted the ALJ's finding that the Long Hill Board did not violate Colantoni's seniority and tenure rights when it eliminated her position and "contracted out" for guidance services. The Commissioner disagreed, however, with the ALJ's conclusion that the Commission lacked the authority to provide educational services to non-handicapped students. According to the Commissioner, "[w]hile the primary purpose of a jointure commission is to assist boards of education in carrying out their common duties with respect to the education and training of handicapped pupils, nothing in the statute . . . preclude[s] [it] from expanding the scope of its services to include non-handicapped [students]."
Colantoni appealed to the State Board of Education. On March 3, 1999, the State Board reinstated the ALJ's determination that the contract between the Long Hill Board and the Commission was unlawful to the extent that it required the Commission to provide educational services to non-handicapped pupils. *fn2 In reaching this conclusion, the State Board stressed that the legislatively articulated purpose for creating a jointure commission was to provide for the education and training of handicapped students. On March 23, 1999, the Commission filed a motion with the State Board, seeking to intervene and requesting reconsideration. While that motion was pending, Colantoni filed a notice of appeal with this court effectively divesting the State Board of jurisdiction. However, on May 7, 1999, the State Board denied the Commission's motion. *fn3 In its written decision, the State Board directed the Commissioner of Education to determine what activities of the Commission "involved the provision of services to non-handicapped students." We subsequently granted the Commission's motion to appear in the role of amicus curiae. We now consider the issue presented.
We view the question before us as solely one of statutory interpretation. More specifically, we have no occasion to determine which of the services provided by the Commission benefit handicapped pupils and which benefit non-handicapped pupils. This is an issue within the State Board's domain. The State Board has ordered the Commissioner to investigate that subject. We have no occasion to delve into that question here.
At issue is whether a jointure commission is authorized to provide educational services to non-handicapped students. In resolving that question, we give substantial deference to the interpretation of the agency charged with enforcement of the statute - the State Board. The State Board's construction of the statute "will prevail provided it is not plainly unreasonable." Merin v. Maglaki, 126 N.J. 430, 437 (1992); see also Turnpike Authority v. AFSCME Council 73, 150 N.J. 331, 351 (1997). Although the Legislature's clearly expressed legislative intent "cannot be trumped by countervailing administrative practices," Airwork Serv. Div. v. Director, Div. Taxation, 97 N.J. 290, 296 (1984), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1127, 105 S. Ct. 2662, 86 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985), and agencies do not necessarily have "superior ability to resolve purely legal questions," Greenwood v. State Police Training Center, 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992), we recognize that we have no monopoly on justice and are thus obliged to give weight to the manner in which an executive department has applied a statute. Service Armament Co. v. Hyland, 70 N.J. 550, 560-63 (1976).
In this case, the State Board's interpretation is manifestly supported by the statutory language. ...