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City of Orange Township Board of Education v. City of Orange Township

Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Essex

August 7, 2017

CITY OF ORANGE TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ORANGE TOWNSHIP; CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF ORANGE TOWNSHIP; ESSEX COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, Defendants.

          Decided: April 13, 2017

          Stephen J. Edelstein for plaintiff (Schwartz, Simon, Edelstein & Celso, LLC, attorneys).

          Eric S. Pennington and Gracia R. Montilus for defendant, City of Orange Township (Dan S. Smith, attorney).

          Robert L. Tarver, Jr. for defendant, City Council of the City of Orange Township (Dan S. Smith, attorney).

          Alan C. Stephens, Deputy Attorney General, for defendant, Essex County Board of Elections (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney).

          Alexis Karteron, Director, Rutgers University Constitutional Rights Clinic, for amicus curiae S. George Reed.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. VENA, J.S.C.

         Preliminary Statement

         This matter comes before the court on the City of Orange Township Board of Education's ("plaintiff's") verified complaint and order to show cause to restrain the Essex County Board of Elections ("County Board") from certifying the results of the City of Orange Township's March 28, 2017, special school board election and to restrain the City Council of the City of Orange Township ("City Council") from taking action in furtherance of the November 8, 2016, referendum, which converted the City of Orange Township School District from a Type I school district, one in which the school board members are appointed by the mayor of the City of Orange Township, to a Type II school district, one in which the school board members are elected by the residents of the City of Orange Township.

         The defendants in this matter are the City Council, the City of Orange Township ("City"), and the County Board. When appropriate, the court will refer to these parties collectively as "defendants."

         Additionally, the Rutgers University Constitutional Law Clinic, under the supervision of Alexis Karteron, and authorized to practice law in New Jersey pursuant to Rule 1:21-3(b), has filed a motion for leave to appear as amicus curiae and to represent S. George Reed, a concerned citizen and long-established City resident. The Clinic has filed an amicus brief to participate in oral argument on April 13, 2017, to further emphasize its position that the change from an appointed school board to an elected school board should be upheld.

         Introduction

         The genesis of this matter can be traced to July 6, 2016, the date which the City Council adopted a resolution which called for a referendum at its next general election, scheduled for November 8, 2016, for the City to change from an appointed school board, a Type I school district, to an elected school board, a Type II school district. The first school board election was to be held during the November 2017 general election.

         Plaintiff argues that the City's municipal public question and interpretive statement-both of which appeared on the City's November 8, 2016, ballot-were misleading and contrary to N.J.S.A. 19:3-6 in that they did not adequately inform the voters of what it meant to change from a Type I school district to a Type II school district. Defendants counter that the public question and interpretive statement both fully complied with N.J.S.A. 19:3-6, as both satisfactorily informed the voters of the true purpose of the matter being voted upon so as to make the voters generally aware of what they were voting for.

         Procedural History

         On February 3, 2017, plaintiff filed a petition for emergent relief before the Commissioner of Education for essentially the same relief that it seeks from this court. Plaintiff's petition was sent by the Commissioner to the Office of Administrative Law and assigned to the Honorable Michael Antoniewicz, an Administrative Law Judge, who, on February 28, 2017, determined that the Superior Court is the proper forum. With the special school election set for March 14, 2017, all parties were summoned to this court on March 13, 2017. It was on that date that the court entered an order postponing the special school election, as a result of an impending and significant winter storm, to March 28, 2017.

         Once that election took place, per the court's order of March 15, 2017, the County Board was enjoined from certifying the results of said election until further notice from the court. This enjoinment was ordered with the consent of all parties. The March 15, 2017, order also included a provision wherein plaintiff was ordered to amend its verified complaint to include the City as a defendant, which plaintiff did.

         Statement of Facts

         On July 6, 2016, the City Council passed resolution 125-2016, which called for a referendum at the next general election, scheduled for November 8, 2016, for the City to change from an appointed school board, a Type I school district, to an elected school board, a Type II school district, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:9-4.

         Type I school districts have a Board of School Estimate pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:22-1, a group in charge of budgets and spending pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:22-7. Generally, these boards operate in the following manner: when issues of spending arise, or when necessary to bond for capital projects, the Board of School Estimate passes a resolution and the municipality then passes a bond ordinance. Type II school districts do not have a Board of School Estimate. In Type II school districts, bonding for capital projects must be approved by public referendum.

         In accordance with resolution 125-2016, on November 8, 2016, the referendum appeared on the ballot. The municipal public question stated as follows: "Shall the Board of Education of the City of Orange Township be changed from a board that is appointed by the Mayor, to a board that is elected by the residents of Orange, effective immediately, with the first school board election to be held during the November 2017 general election[?]" The accompanying interpretive statement read: "Presently the Mayor appoints members to serve on the City's Board of Education. If changed to a board of elected members, the residents will have more control over who serves on the board of education."

         City residents voted to switch the district from a Type I school district to a Type II school district, with approximately 77% of the voters expressing their desire for the change. Soon after the election, the City Council passed a first reading ordinance which provided for about $2.5 million worth of capital improvements throughout the school system. This ordinance was passed, without the appropriate authority, on December 20, 2016. City Council admits this was a mistake, and the City does not contend otherwise. On March 28, 2017, a special school board election took place. This election resulted in the addition of two members to the school board. The board, with this addition, now consists of nine members.

         Legal ...


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