On appeal from the Department of Education, Board of Review (A-3582-01 & A-3597-01) and from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, L-4467-02 (A-270-02).
Before Judges Skillman, Cuff and Winkelstein.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Corrected Opinion filed: June 13, 2003
The Borough of North Haledon seeks to withdraw from the limited purpose regional high school district of which it is a member. The school is currently racially and ethnically diverse. In order to withdraw, North Haledon was required to obtain permission from a board of review to submit the question of its withdrawal to the voters of the regional high school district. The Board of Review appointed to review North Haledon's petition authorized the submission of the question to the voters, and the referendum obtained a sufficient number of votes to allow North Haledon to withdraw from the regional district.
The decision by the Board of Review and the referendum question presented to the voters present two questions for our consideration. First, we must decide whether the withdrawal of North Haledon, which will immediately cause a 9% decrease of the white population and will lead to a racial and ethnic imbalance in the school within a short time, is a negative impact on the education offered by the regional district which bars submission of the question to the voters of the regional district. Second, we examine whether the question and interpretive statement presented to the voters at the referendum fairly express the purpose of the matter which is the subject of the referendum.
We consolidated the appeals of the Passaic County Manchester Regional High School District, Haledon Board of Education, the Borough of Haledon, Prospect Park Board of Education, and the Borough of Prospect Park which challenge the decision by the Board of Review to allow a vote on the question of the withdrawal of the Borough of North Haledon and the North Haledon School District from the Passaic County Manchester Regional High School District. We now also consolidate the appeal, A-270-02T5, of the regional high school district from an order of the Law Division settling the terms of the referendum question.
We address first the decision by the Board of Review to allow the question of North Haledon's withdrawal from the limited purpose regional high school district to be presented to the residents of each district. The Board of Review found that the loss of North Haledon students might cause the elimination of some courses and teaching staff, but the district would still have a sufficient number of students to provide a thorough and efficient education. The Board found that white students comprise 57%*fn1 of the student population and predicted that the removal of North Haledon students would result in a 9% drop in the white population of the high school. The Board opined that this loss would have a negligible impact on the school. We conclude that a 9% decrease in the white population of the high school cannot be considered a negligible impact on the education program and reverse.
In 1957, the municipalities of North Haledon, Haledon and Prospect Park formed a limited purpose regional high school district. The district, known as Passaic County Manchester Regional High School District, provides secondary education for students from the constituent school districts. The regional high school district operates one school which is located on a 24.53 acre campus in Haledon. The school districts of North Haledon, Haledon and Prospect Park operate independent pre-K through 8 schools.
Over the years, particularly during the 1990s and to the present time, residents of North Haledon became increasingly displeased about the financial burden they bore to support the regional high school district. When the regional high school district was formed in 1957, the district's capital and debt service tax levies were apportioned among the constituent districts based upon property tax ratables; the operational costs were apportioned based on enrollment from the constituent districts. In the mid-1970s, the school tax for all costs was changed to an apportionment based upon the equalized value of real estate in each constituent district. N.J.S.A. 18A:13-23. Over the years, North Haledon has paid an increasingly disproportionate share, on a per pupil basis, of the cost relative to the other constituent districts. For example, in the 2001-02 school year, Prospect Park paid $3,400 per pupil to educate its high school students; Haledon paid $5,300 per pupil; and North Haledon paid $18,400. Historically, North Haledon students comprise approximately 20% of the school population.
In 1995, North Haledon proposed a referendum to alter the method of apportionment of the tax levy from that of equalized value of real property to that of per pupil enrollment. The question was defeated. North Haledon initiated litigation to revise the apportionment of costs; it was unsuccessful. The regional high school district budget has been defeated on two occasions in the last five years, 1997-98 and 2001-02; the residents of North Haledon have been responsible each year for the defeat of the budget.
In 1998, North Haledon formed an ad hoc committee to analyze alternatives available to it to address its concerns about the cost of secondary education for its residents. These efforts led to the retention of experts and the preparation of a feasibility report (the Beineman/Kirtland Report) and a request by the Borough of North Haledon to the Passaic County Superintendent of Schools to conduct an investigation of the advisability of withdrawal of North Haledon from the regional high school district.
On October 15, 2001, the county superintendent issued her report. She opined that the regional high school district could still offer a thorough and efficient education if North Haledon withdrew but observed that there would be some impact on the educational program and extracurricular and co-curricular activities. For example, North Haledon students comprise on average 31% of the enrollment in Advanced Placement and Honors courses. Sixty percent of North Haledon seniors participate in athletics and extracurricular clubs and activities. Thirty-three percent of the girls soccer team is comprised of North Haledon students. Therefore, the county superintendent expressed concern that, if North Haledon was allowed to withdraw from the district, classes with low enrollments may not be continued, the same level of courses may not be continued, and some athletic teams may be discontinued.
The county superintendent opined that there would be some financial savings, such as transportation, textbooks, salaries and out-of-district tuition, experienced as a result of the withdrawal of North Haledon students. She also predicted that State school aid would increase but not enough to offset the revenue lost due to a withdrawal by North Haledon. Therefore, the tax levy for the remaining districts, Haledon and Prospect Park, would rise. Furthermore, the borrowing capacity of the regional high school district would be reduced from $30,000,000 to just under $15,000,000.
The county superintendent noted that the racial and ethnic diversity of the regional high school would be negatively affected. The white student population in the high school would decrease 9% by the withdrawal of students from North Haledon, almost all of whom are white. She noted that demographic changes within Haledon and Prospect Park indicated a growing proportion of non-white students. The withdrawal ...