On appeal from a Final Decision of the Commissioner of Education, Docket Nos. 90-3/08 and 91-3/08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 14, 2009
Before Judges Reisner, Yannotti and Chambers.
M.J.-M., on behalf of minor children E.A.M., Jr. and E.M., and N.J., on behalf of minor child S.T., appeal from a final determination of the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner), finding that the children were not domiciled in the Borough of Ridgefield (Ridgefield) and not eligible to attend Ridgefield's public schools. We affirm.
By letters dated March 14, 2008, the Ridgefield Board of Education (Board) advised M.J.-M. and N.J. that their children were not domiciled in Ridgefield and would be "de-enrolled" from the district's schools. M.J.-M. and N.J. were further advised that they could appeal these determinations to the Commissioner and if they failed to establish that the children are entitled to attend Ridgefield's schools, they could both be assessed tuition for any period in which the children were ineligible to attend the district's schools. M.J.-M. and N.J. filed appeals with the Commissioner.
The appeals were referred to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which took place on July 10, 2008. At the hearing, evidence was presented which indicated that M.J.-M. and N.J. are sisters. M.J.-M. is the mother of twin boys, E.A.M., Jr. and E.M., who were then seven years old. N.J. is the mother of S.T., who was twelve years old at the time. E.A.M., Jr. and E.M. attended kindergarten and had recently completed first grade in the district's schools. S.T. had been enrolled in the district's schools since 2002 and had just completed the seventh grade.
M.J.-M. and N.J. maintained that all three children resided in a home located on Prospect Avenue in Ridgefield, along with another sister and her husband. M.J.-M. asserted that she occupied a bedroom on the first floor of the Prospect Avenue residence with her two sons. N.J. said that she and her daughter occupied a bedroom on the second floor.
M.J.-M. asserted that her name is on the deed of the residence on Prospect Avenue, as well as on a house located on East Brinkerhoff Avenue in Palisades Park. According to M.J.-M., the Palisades Park residence is occupied by her mother. She stated that she wakes the children early in the morning at the residence on Prospect Avenue, takes them to her mother's house in Palisades Park for breakfast, and then she or N.J. transports the boys to school from there.
N.J. asserted that, between 2002 and 2007, she resided in a home on Ray Avenue in Ridgefield. She said that her sister and brother-in-law owned the Ray Avenue property but sold it in July 2007. N.J. stated that she purchased a house in Lodi in December 2006. She claimed that she always intended to use the Lodi house as rental property.
N.J. further testified that she separated from her husband and, at the time of the hearing, he was living in the basement apartment of the Lodi home. N.J. asserted that she wakes her daughter early in the morning and takes her to her husband's apartment in Lodi. She said that her husband brings the child back to the Prospect Avenue residence in Ridgefield in time for her to attend school, which is located across the street from the house.
The Board presented testimony from Ronald J. Deramo (Deramo), in support of its "de-enrollment" decisions. The Board employs Deramo as "an enrollment verification officer." Deramo conducted visual surveillance of the residences involved on various dates during January, February, March, May and June 2008.
Deramo testified that, during his surveillance, he observed M.J.-M.'s children being taken to the school in Ridgefield from the Palisades Park residence. He stated that, after school, the children would go to the house on Prospect Avenue in Ridgefield but they would return to the house in Palisades Park for the evening. Deramo further testified that, during his surveillance, he observed N.J.'s car parked at the Lodi house. He saw her leave, presumably to go to work, and also saw the child's father drive S.T. to school in Ridgefield.
The ALJ concluded that M.J.-M. and N.J. failed to meet their burden of proof of establishing that the children were domiciled in Ridgefield during the 2007-2008 school year. The ALJ accordingly affirmed the Board's decision to de-enroll the children. The ALJ also granted the Board's application for reimbursement of tuition for the 2007-2008 school year, requiring M.J.-M. to pay $15,392 and N.J. to pay $7,128. The Commissioner issued her decision ...