On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Education, Docket No. 39-3/10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 27, 2011
Before Judges Reisner, Simonelli and Hayden.
Piscataway, the Board of Education of the Township of Piscataway (Piscataway), appeals from the November 8, 2010 final decision of the Commissioner of Education that Piscataway is responsible for the educational costs of pupil B.S. at a residential facility in Pennsylvania for the entire 2007-2008 school year. Piscataway contends that the Commissioner's interpretation of the State Facilities Education Act of 1979 (SFEA), N.J.S.A. 18A:7B-1 to -13, that the district of residence for a child the State places in a State facility remains the same for the entire school year, is inconsistent with both the statutory language and the "bedrock" educational principle that children must be educated by the district in which they are domiciled. Respondents New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) and the Board of Education of the Borough of Dunellen (Dunellen) argue that the language of the SFEA and its implementing regulations, read in pari materia, clearly require that the district of residence for a State-placed child be determined for the entire academic year at one point in time. Because in the context of the statutory scheme of the SFEA, we find that the Commissioner's interpretation of the statute and implementing regulation is reasonable, we affirm.
The facts giving rise to this controversy are not in dispute. A.J., the mother of B.S., lived in Piscataway on September 27, 2007, when the New Jersey Department of Children and Families placed B.S. in an out-of-state educational facility. Sometime in November 2007, A.J. moved to Dunellen without notifying Piscataway. This dispute arose after Director of the NJDOE Office of School Funding (OSF) determined that Piscataway was B.S.'s district of residence for the 2007-2008 academic year and Dunellen was his district of residence for the following academic year "in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:7B-12, N.J.A.C. 6A:23-5.2*fn1 , N.J.A.C. 6A:23-5.3."
On December 21, 2009, Piscataway notified the NJDOE of its intent to appeal the Director's determination, arguing that it was only financially responsible for the cost of B.S.'s education until A.J. moved to Dunellen in November 2007. The Director responded as follows:
The [OSF] only makes district of residence determinations when requested to do so by the Department of Children and Families because there is a dispute as to which school district, if any, is responsible for the educational costs of a child that is placed by a state agency. The determinations by our office are for an entire academic year. If the child's parent or guardian moves to another school district during that year, then the district originally made responsible for the child's educational costs must work with the new district to have the child registered in the new school district. Otherwise, the original determination remains in effect for the entire academic year.
Piscataway filed an appeal, which the Commissioner transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) on April 19, 2010. The Director of the OSF filed a certification affirming that "[c]onsistent with the statutory and regulatory scheme, the NJDOE-OSF makes only one district of residency determination based on one point in time that remains in effect for the entire year. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7B-12(b); N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-19.2(a)." All parties agreed that no material facts were in dispute and the matter was appropriate for summary decision. On October 4, 2010, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a written decision upholding the OSF's residency determination. She reasoned:
While N.J.S.A. 18A:38-1 governs the education of typical children, a separate statutory enactment, N.J.S.A. 18A:7B-1 [to -13], specifically governs the education of children who have been placed residentially by State agencies. The [SFEA] and the regulations that interpret it, make it clear that for this latter group of children, a determination of residence is made only once annually. . . . These enactments clearly and unequivocally set a point in time, the date of placement, as determinative for the initial residency determination, and go on to provide that the parent's domicile as of the last school day prior to October 16 will be determinative "[i]n subsequent school years." N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-19.2(a)(2).
On November 8, 2010, the Commissioner adopted the ALJ's initial decision. This appeal followed.
We begin with a review of well-settled principles governing this case. Our role in reviewing an agency decision is limited. In re Stallworth, 208 N.J. 182, 194 (2011) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579 (1980)). "We accord a strong presumption of reasonableness to such decisions and do not substitute our judgment for the wisdom of agency action if the action is statutorily authorized and not arbitrary and unreasonable." A.M.S. ex rel A.D.S. v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Margate, 409 N.J. Super. 149, 159 (App. Div. 2009). As long as an agency decision is contemplated under its enabling ...