Lenape keeps school funding status quo, but challenge it's not over

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    STANHOPE-Voters from Byram and Stanhope may have spoken, rejecting a plan last week to revamp a formula for funding their school district, but the Sussex County residents probably have not heard the last from neighboring Netcong, the tiny Morris County municipality with whom they share the Lenape Valley Regional High School. Netcong officials said they will now pursue change through the state education commissioner after voters from Byram and Stanhope rejected a plan to modify the manner in which property taxes are apportioned to a formula based solely upon the number of pupils enrolled from each municipality. "We still believe it's totally unfair," said Nicholas Pompilio, Netcong's mayor. "We'll pay our fair share, but I don't think we should pay more than our fair share." The referendum, approved in Netcong, but defeated in the two Sussex County communities, would have phased in a new funding system over a two-year period. "It was a difficult issue," said Robert Klinck, Lenape Valley Regional High School assistant superintendent for business. "Each town is going to vote in its best interest and can you really expect people to do other than that. That's the democratic way. People are going to vote for what is best for their town." Netcong officials wanted to see a change in the system that apportions tax levies based upon each municipality's actual enrollment of students in the regional high school. The current formula, in place for the past 10 years, computes each municipality's equalized valuation with its elementary and regional school enrollments. "It is a process and there are statues which drive the process," said Paul Palek Jr., school district superintendent. "I believe that everything that we attempted to do as a school board was to allow the citizens of the school district to decide what the proposal should be. The funding process was in their hands through this vote." Netcong voters approved the referendum 446-7, with roughly half of the registered voters turning out to cast ballots. Stanhope voters rejected the new measure, 627-16. Byram voters defeated the proposal, 184-109. All three towns needed to approve the referendum for the law to be changed. Of the 37 regional high school districts in the state, all but two use the current tax formula. But, Pompilio said, other schools in regional districts are expected to contest the existing apportioning method. "We're not alone in this situation," he said. "Maybe it's time the legislators stepped up to bat to see what will work equitably as opposed to inequitably." The referendum came at the request of officials in Netcong, where residents believe the current formula isn't fair, said Timothy Grogan, a school board member and Netcong resident. "It's very complicated now," said Grogan. "You should pay your taxes on how many people you send to school. That's not very complicated." According to the superintendent's office, under the formula in 2004-2005, the per-pupil cost is $7,220 or 20.7 percent of the tax levy to operate the school district for Stanhope; $8,728 or 57 percent in Byram; and $10,338 or 22.3 percent in Netcong. "We took a neutral stand, but I wasn't surprised about the vote," said Walter Stanek, Byram Township school board president. "We felt it was up to the voters to decide which way they wanted to go." Netcong sends the fewest students to the district -- about 160 or 18.7 percent n compared to 213 or 24.8 from Stanhope; and 486 or 57 percent from Byram. "They are obviously paying more per pupil," said Klinck. "I think Netcong is pursuing the right course of action. I fully understand why they are seeking a change. They are paying more than the amount of students they send here."