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Save Camden Public Schools v. Camden City Board of Education

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 24, 2018

SAVE CAMDEN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, UNITY COMMUNITY CENTER OF SOUTH JERSEY, INC., JENIFFER ALVIRA, MONEKE RAGSDALE, JEANNETTE MELENDEZ, and RONSHA DICKERSON, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
CAMDEN CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, CAMDEN CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, PAYMON ROUHANIFARD, Superintendent, Camden City School District, Defendants-Respondents, and CAMDEN COUNTY NAACP EDUCATION COMMITTEE, Plaintiff, and DAVID HESPE, New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Defendant.

          Argued March 20, 2018

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-1552-16.

          Flavio L. Komuves argued the cause for appellants (Zazzali, Fagella, Nowak, Kleinbaum & Friedman, PC, attorneys; Flavio L. Komuves, of counsel and on the briefs).

          William M. Tambussi argued the cause for respondents (Brown & Connery, LLP, attorneys; William M. Tambussi and Tara L. Humma, on the brief).

          Ronald K. Chen argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward Barocas, Jeanne LoCicero, and Alexander Shalom, of counsel and on the brief).

          Before Judges Hoffman, Gilson, and Mayer.

          OPINION

          GILSON, J.A.D.

         This appeal involves the interpretation of two statutes concerning the right of Camden citizens to vote on the classification of their school district. That vote will determine whether members of the Camden City Board of Education (Board) are elected or appointed by the mayor. Plaintiffs contend that a vote on that issue was required in April 2014, under a 2010 amendment to the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act (MRERA), N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-63.1(c). Defendants counter that because the school district was placed into full State intervention in 2013, the classification vote is not required until the district satisfies certain "performance indicators" under the Quality Single Accountability Continuum Act (QSAC), N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-49(e). MRERA and QSAC contain provisions that set forth different frameworks for school district classification votes. Accordingly, we must determine which statutory framework governs.

         We hold that the 2010 amendment to MRERA governs because its language is clear in granting Camden citizens the right to a school district classification vote, and nothing in QSAC restricts that right. Significantly, granting Camden citizens the right to a school district classification vote does not interfere with the State's full intervention because the Board will continue to serve in an advisory role until the conditions of QSAC are satisfied. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's August 15, 2016 order dismissing plaintiffs' complaint. We remand with the direction that the trial court conduct a hearing within thirty days to determine when the school district classification vote will be held.

         I.

         The material facts are not in dispute. In 2002, the Legislature enacted MRERA, N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-1 to -79. That statute allowed the State to appoint an "overseer" or "chief operating officer" (COO) to control the governance of municipalities experiencing long-term fiscal distress. N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-7(a). Under MRERA, the State can effectively take control of a municipality with the goal of restoring fiscal stability and, thereafter, returning governance to local control. N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-2(o).

         MRERA also authorized "limited school district oversight" if the district is contiguous with the municipality and was already subject to certain levels of State monitoring. N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-2.1(d), -4(d), -63; see also Camden City Bd. of Educ. v. McGreevey, 369 N.J.Super. 592, 597-600 (App.Div. 2004) (describing some of the legislative history of MRERA).[1]

         In October 2002, shortly after MRERA became effective, the State appointed a COO to oversee Camden's fiscal and budgetary affairs. Before the State implemented its oversight of Camden under MRERA, the school district had been classified as a Type II district, which meant that members of the Board were elected. N.J.S.A. 18A:9-3; N.J.S.A. 18A:12-11. Once Camden was placed under the oversight of the State-appointed COO, however, the Board's powers were limited. Under MRERA, all actions of the Board were subject to gubernatorial veto. N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-64(b). In addition, the governor had the right to appoint three new Board members and, thereafter, as existing Board members' terms expired, either the governor or mayor made replacement appointments. N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-63.

         In 2010, the Legislature amended MRERA to restore certain local control to municipalities being overseen by the State. N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-63.1. At that time, Camden was the only municipality operating under MRERA. Accordingly, then-Governor Corzine referred to the amendment as the "Camden Freedom Act."

         The 2010 amendment to MRERA added new provisions for affected school districts. One of the new statutory provisions directed that a school district contiguous with a municipality under MRERA would become a Type I district "upon the commencement of the economic recovery term . . . ." N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-63.1(a); see also N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-3 ("Economic recovery term means the period commencing with the expiration of the term of the [COO] and terminating [ten] years thereafter.").

         Another provision stated that "[a]t the April school election in the fourth school year following the commencement of the economic recovery term[, ]" there would be a vote on "the classification status of the district as a Type I or Type II district . . . ." N.J.S.A. 52:27BBB-63.1(c). Thus, once the economic recovery term commenced, the school district would be converted to a Type I district, with school board members appointed by the mayor. Four years later, the voters would have the opportunity to decide if the school district should remain a Type I district or transition to a Type II district, where voters would elect school board members.

         On January 18, 2010, which was the same day that the amendment to MRERA passed, the term of the State-appointed COO expired and Camden commenced economic recovery. Accordingly, the vote on the classification of the Camden school district was to be held in April 2014.

         Separate from the State's oversight of Camden under MRERA, the State Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) filed an order to show cause in March 2013, seeking to implement full State intervention over the Camden school district under QSAC. Shortly thereafter, the Board entered into a consent decree placing the Camden school district into full State intervention, effective June 25, 2013. Under QSAC's provisions for full intervention, the State Board of Education was authorized to appoint its own superintendent and other "highly skilled professionals" to provide "technical assistance to the district in implementing its improvement plan" and "direct oversight . . . regarding the quality performance indicators" set forth in QSAC. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-14(c)(2), -15(c).

         After the Camden school district was placed into full State intervention under QSAC, its existing Board remained in place, and the Commissioner had the right to appoint three additional members to the Board. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-47(a). The Board, however, became an advisory board, with limited authority. Ibid. Thereafter, the State-appointed superintendent effectively controlled the Camden school district, with the Board serving in an advisory role. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-47(a) to (b), -15(b), -35(a). In addition to advising the State-appointed superintendent, the Board had the right to receive certain information and to participate in the review process that would ultimately lead to the restoration of local control. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-47(b).

         QSAC, which was enacted in 2005 and last substantively amended in 2007, established a comprehensive statutory scheme to evaluate a school district's performance. The statute provides that when a district under full State intervention meets certain "performance indicators, " and is placed into partial intervention or returned to local control, a vote on ...


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