On appeal from the New Jersey State Board of Education, Docket No. 162-07.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Fisher and Baxter.
N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1 enumerates those matters on which a sending-district representative is eligible to vote on a receiving district's board. We must enforce this statute literally because its unambiguous language, as illuminated by its legislative history, reveals an intent to permit voting only on enumerated matters. We thus affirm the agency decision, which held sending-district representatives ineligible to vote on the appointment of the receiving district's solicitor, because it is not expressly authorized by the statute.
The facts are not in dispute. The record reveals that Ventnor, Margate, Longport and Brigantine send their high school students to the Atlantic City district in exchange for tuition reimbursement. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1, these sending districts are entitled to have representatives on the receiving district's board of education. Some locales, including Atlantic City, permitted sending-district representatives to vote on various organizational matters, including the selection of board solicitor. In 2006, Scott Evans, a member of the Atlantic City board, objected to this voting practice, asserting that it violated N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1.
Evans filed a petition with the Department of Education, which referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law. An administrative law judge determined that N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1 does not authorize a sending-district representative to participate in the receiving board's decision to appoint a solicitor. The Commissioner of Education agreed. Only Ventnor has appealed that final agency decision.
In reviewing a final agency decision, we must give deference to the findings of fact upon which it is based. Jackson v. Concord Co., 54 N.J. 113, 117-18 (1969). We must also give "some deference to [the agency's] 'interpretation of statutes and regulations within its implementing and enforcing responsibility,'" Utley v. Board of Review, Dep't of Labor, 194 N.J. 534, 551 (2008) (quoting In re Appeal by Progressive Cas. Ins. Co., 307 N.J. Super. 93, 102 (App. Div. 1997)), but we are "in no way bound by the agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a strictly legal issue," Utley, supra, 194 N.J. at 551 (quoting Mayflower Sec. Co. v. Bureau of Sec., 64 N.J. 85, 93 (1973)). Because the sole issue to be decided in this appeal is the purely legal question of whether a sending-district representative is authorized to vote on the appointment of the receiving district's solicitor, the Commissioner's decision regarding the scope of the statute is not entitled to any deference. In any event, we observe that the Commissioner's interpretation is consistent with our interpretation.
In ascertaining the proper scope of N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1, we must necessarily begin with an analysis of that statute's plain meaning. Brooks v. Odom, 150 N.J. 395, 401 (1997); Lammers v. Point Pleasant Bd. of Educ., 134 N.J. 264, 267 (1993).
N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1 declares that a sending-district representative, who otherwise meets the requirements of the statute, shall be eligible to vote on the following matters before the receiving district board of education:
a. Tuition to be charged the sending district by the receiving district and the bill lists or contracts for the purchase, operation or maintenance of facilities, equipment and instructional materials to be used in the education of the pupils of the sending district;
b. New capital construction to be utilized by sending district pupils;
c. Appointment, transfer or removal of teaching staff members providing services to pupils of the sending district, including any teaching staff member who is a member of the ...