On appeal from a Final Decision of the Commissioner of Education.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez, Sabatino and Ashrafi.
Appellants, the City of Elizabeth and its mayor and council, appeal from a June 18, 2010 decision of the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education to reinstate and certify the statutorily required minimum tax levy for the City of Elizabeth school district. Appellants contend the Commissioner's decision is unconstitutional because it abrogates the statutory right of the voters to reject the budget proposed by the Board of Education and the statutory right of the City's governing body to recommend cuts in the school budget. We affirm the Commissioner's decision. It was mandated by the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, L. 2007, c. 260 (codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-43 to -63 and amending other statutes). Appellants have not shown violation of any constitutional rights.
The 2008 legislation amended statutes pertaining to State financial aid to local school districts. Section 28 of the Act, codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-5(b), provides in part:
Each district shall have a required local share. For districts that receive educational adequacy aid pursuant to subsection b. of section 16 of P.L. 2007, c. 260 ([N.J.S.A.] 18A:7F-58), the required local share shall be calculated in accordance with the provisions of that subsection.
The Elizabeth school district receives educational adequacy aid from the State. Therefore, its local share of the school budget must be calculated in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-58.
Applying these statutes, the Department of Education's Division of Finance wrote to the superintendent of the Elizabeth school district in March 2010 stating that the mandatory local share of the school budget was $48,673,323, to be funded by a general tax levy for the 2010-11 school year. That tax levy would be a ten percent increase from the general school tax levied upon the city's property owners the previous year.
The Board of Education proposed a budget in the precise amount calculated by the Department of Education. However, in a school election held on April 20, 2010, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:22-33, city voters defeated the proposed budget and tax levy.
Generally, if voters reject a school budget, the municipal governing body and the board of education must confer about potential modification of the budget. N.J.S.A. 18A:22-37. The governing body must then certify to the county board of taxation the amount of the local school tax to be levied. Ibid. If the governing body fails to certify the local school tax levy, or if the board of education contests the amount certified, the Commissioner of Education must fix the local school budget and certify the amount of taxes to be levied for that purpose.
N.J.S.A. 18A:22-38; Bd. of Educ. of Twp. of Deptford v. Mayor & Council of Twp. of Deptford, 116 N.J. 305, 313 (1989); Bd. of Educ., Twp. of E. Brunswick v. Twp. Council, 48 N.J. 94, 102-06 (1966).
In this case, despite the voters' rejection of the budget, the Executive County Superintendent for Union County wrote to the Municipal Clerk of the City of Elizabeth that the governing body "must certify the original amount [$48,673,323] . . . the minimum tax levy to meet the . . . local share required by N.J.S.A. 18A-7F-5." The city council did not follow the County Superintendent's directive. Instead, it certified a reduced school budget and tax levy of $43,727,407. The Elizabeth Board of Education appealed the certified amount to the Commissioner. On June 18, 2010, the Commissioner decided the dispute in favor of the Board of Education and certified to the Union County Board of Taxation that the minimum school tax levy for Elizabeth for 2010-11 must be $48,673,323 as originally determined.
The mayor and city council filed this appeal before us to challenge the Commissioner's decision. Besides contending that the decision deprives the governing body of its statutory right to recommend cuts in the school budget, they argue that the school budget election is meaningless if the Commissioner can simply override the voters and reinstate the original budget as proposed without consideration of the cuts recommended by the governing body. They also contend that the Commissioner's decision was arbitrary and unreasonable because the school budget is bloated with unnecessary expenses while at the same time the district planned to eliminate several hundred instructional positions. In support of their arguments, appellants refer to a letter of June 1, 2010, ...