Cape May threatens to leave school district

     Cape May students attend the Lower Cape May Regional School District.

    Cape May students attend the Lower Cape May Regional School District.

    Classrooms may be empty, but on the southern tip of New Jersey, a school issue has been sizzling all summer.

    Officials in the city of Cape May are threatening to pull out of the local school district, saying its taxpayers are shelling out a disproportionate share of the costs. Since the 1950s, the city has been part of the Lower Cape May Regional District, which also serves middle- and high-schoolers from West Cape May and Lower Township.

    Over the years, as Cape May’s reputation as a tourist town rose, so did property values, driving some families out into neighboring “suburbs.”  A move of a few miles meant a bigger, perhaps newer home, with a smaller tax bill, in the township’s bayside neighborhoods.

    Yet the state-mandated funding formula bases each town’s taxed amount on property values, rather than the number of students it sends to the regional district.

    As a result Cape May’s per-pupil cost is now an astronomical $79,977, because so few school-aged children actually live within the city’s limits today. In 2010, U.S. Census data showed 699 people under age 19 in Cape May, and 5,079 in Lower Township.

    Of course, Cape May benefits directly and indirectly from the quality of the area’s schools, even if the funding formula seems out of whack. At this point, it’s about dueling feasibility studies and rhetoric, and some are suggesting abolishing the regional district in favor of one run by Lower Township, with Cape May as a sender.

    The issue has Al Campbell, the editor of the Cape May Herald, tossing around words like “revolution,” and offering to set up a meeting among the heads of Cape May and Lower Township, whom he likened to armies of the Civil War. (There’s also something about “an Oriental grip,” but you’ll have to figure that one out yourself.

    Late Thursday, Campbell told me by email that he’d heard from a Cape May official, who said the time for talk was past.

    “At this point, the township and two other entities will be given until Dec. 16 to come up with feasibility studies that will, of course, show Cape May’s exit to their detriment,” Campbell said, though he remains undeterred.

    “I told (the Cape May official), with all due respect, if we could sit down to talk with the North Vietnamese after fighting them for decades, why would it not be possible to talk to neighboring towns,” he wrote. “After Dec. 16, the county executive [superintendent] has two months to make his decision, then the matter goes to the Commissionerof Education. Regardless of his decision, I have a gut feeling the matter will wind up in the courts.”

    Already, the mayor of Lower Township has promised Cape May City officials “we’ll match you lawyer for lawyer, we’ll match you article for article, and we’ll match your deception and half-truths with the total truth.”

    Because if there’s one thing more certain that death and taxes in New Jersey, it’s that lawyers will make money.

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