Municipalities seeking fair way to share

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:45

    STANHOPE-Just do the math, and then decide, say education officials from the Lenape Valley Regional High School District. Residents of Byram, Stanhope, and Netcong n the three student-sending municipalities to Lenape Valley -- probably wish the answers were that simple. Voters from Byram, Stanhope, and Netcong will formally be asked, when they go to the polls in a special election on Jan. 25, to determine if the manner in which the regional school is funded should be modified to a formula based solely on the number of pupils enrolled from each municipality. The referendum, if passed, would phase in a new funding system over a two-year period. Netcong officials want to see a change in the current system, which computes each municipality's "equalized valuation" with its elementary and regional school enrollments. The formula has been in place for the past 10 years. "We have a neutral position on this n and that being, let the voters speak," said Paul Palek Jr., Lenape Valley Regional High School superintendent. "What better way than putting a referendum out there to determine which way we'd like to move." One problem, though, and school officials are well aware of it -- all three towns must approve the change. "If it doesn't pass, it's not something they'll be happy about in Netcong," said Robert Klinck, assistant school superintendent for business. "It's a tough issue. If it passes, the Stanhope residents won't be happy about it. It's something our board felt we should put before the voters to be fair to everyone." And Byram, which makes up more than half of the school's approximately 875 students? "Fair share is fair," said Eskil "Skip" Danielson, Byram mayor. "We're not opposed to paying our fair share. If cost per pupil is the fairest way to do it and represents our fair share, that's fine." The referendum came at the request of officials in Netcong, where residents believe the current formula is inequitable, 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. "It will be difficult for the referendum to pass, but it's a step we have to take to do something about the way tax dollars are allocated," said Grogan. "We can't sit around and do nothing." 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. Grogan said Netcong's aging population and lack of space for new development puts the borough at a disadvantage. In the 2004-2005 proposed budget, which was defeated by the voters, the tax increase for the average Netcong homeowner was $140.55 or 12.1 percent. In contrast, Netcong officials said, the average tax increase for Stanhope was $16.76 or 1.6 percent, and $26.77 or 2.3 percent in Byram. Stanhope officials are happy with the current formula. They believe the proposed per-pupil funding system fails to consider the costs to the borough as host for the high school in both terms of rateables lost and municipal services provided to the district including sewers, water, and special protection." "There are many elements to this issue," said Joseph Carducci, a Stanhope resident and school board member who voted in favor of the special election. "This is an attempt at equity -- or Robin Hood n the ability to pay." Carducci and other school board members say if the referendum fails, all is not lost. It could be the first step in petitioning the state to change the funding formula. "This is the first step on a long road to bring this issue back before state officials," said Carducci. "At least we're looking at giving the people a voice." Polling facilities will be open 2-9 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 25, in Byram, Netcong, and Stanhope.