Edmondson v. Board of Education of the Borough of Elmer, A-1719-10T2; Appellate Division; opinion by Grall, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication March 5, 2012. Before Judges Parrillo, Grall and Skillman. On appeal from the Commissioner of Education. DDS No. 16-2-5439 [15 pp.]

This appeal involves a challenge to an expansion of a sending-receiving relationship between two adjoining local school districts to include all pupils from the sending district. The receiving district will accommodate all students residing in the adjoining municipalities by renting one of the schools it will operate from the sending district.

Edmondson, a resident of Pittsgrove, appeals from a final decision of the commissioner of the Department of Education dismissing her challenge to the agreement expanding the sending-receiving relationship between the Pittsgrove Township Board of Education and the Board of Education of the Borough of Elmer.

The commissioner concluded that this arrangement does not exceed the authority granted to the boards in N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8, amount to a de facto regionalization that must be accomplished in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:13-34, or permit the commissioner’s intervention on the ground that Elmer’s local school district is a nonoperating district, N.J.S.A. 18A:8-43 to -49.

Held: The sending-receiving arrangement between Pittsgrove and Elmer does not exceed the statutory authority granted to the districts’ boards of education.

The commissioner may not approve an action by local school boards that exceeds their delegated authority. Authority is not implied where its exercise would be inconsistent with the purpose of the enabling legislation, but authority that is reasonably necessary to effectuation of the Legislature’s purpose is implied.

Edmondson’s primary challenge to this sending-receiving relationship is that it is not authorized by N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8. Recast in the statutory language, Edmondson argues that this agreement is not permissible because, prior to the leasing of the school by Pittsgrove, Pittsgrove was not a district “having the necessary accommodations [to] receive … pupils from” Elmer, and Elmer was not a district “not having sufficient accommodations” to educate the students it then had in kindergarten through fourth grade. Thus, Edmondson’s claim is premised on her conclusion that the statute requires an assessment of the “accommodations” the districts “have” without counting accommodations that it will have with the lease of the school to which the districts agreed to expand their sending-receiving relationship.

The appellate panel finds the premise of the argument is inconsistent with the Legislature’s evident purpose in adopting the statutory scheme, which is to permit, not bar, such arrangements. N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8 does not specify the point-in-time for assessing the adequacy of a participating district’s accommodations.

Another provision of Chapter 38 indicates the Legislature’s approval of a receiving district acquiring additional accommodations that are necessary for its participation in a sending-receiving relationship. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:38-20, a district “furnishing elementary and high school education or either thereof for the pupils of another school district” and finding itself in need of “additional facilities,” may condition a sending-receiving arrangement on the sending district’s agreement not to educate the students “in its own or another district during the term” of the agreement. Had the Legislature intended to require an assessment based on current capacity, it presumably would have required termination of an existing sending-receiving relationship when the receiving district’s accommodations are no longer adequate.

The appellate panel finds N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8 is most reasonably understood to permit an assessment of adequacy in light of plans for necessary adjustments, including lease or acquisition of property situated in a sending district that adjoins the municipality. This construction is consistent with N.J.S.A. 18A:38-20, and it is the most reasonable one given the nature of the problem N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8 is designed to address. Accommodating pupils at the expense of taxpayers requires projections. It is not reasonable to assume that the Legislature intended to permit sending-receiving relationships only if the pupils from the sending district can be absorbed without any change in the accommodations available in both districts prior to consideration of a sending-receiving relationship.

Moreover, a construction of N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8 that focuses on facilities that will be available to the receiving district is more consistent with the Legislature’s focus on cost-effective school arrangements, including containing excessive spending on administrative costs that negatively impact the effectiveness and efficiency of education.

In recognizing the existence of sending-receiving relationships that leave a nonoperating district and directing merger of non-operating districts, the Legislature did not amend Chapter 38 of Title 18A to prohibit arrangements that result in creation of a non-operating district. Rather, the Legislature addressed the consequences by providing another avenue for reaching the goal of consolidation through mergers that are consistent with the thorough and efficient education of children.

Here, Elmer’s board was considering whether it could continue operation of its single school, and Pittsgrove’s board recognized the advantages in grouping fifth grade students in a grammar school setting, which was more appropriate for them than middle school. By renting the school Elmer was seeking to discontinue, Pittsgrove would be able to accommodate all the pupils of both districts: kindergarten classes held in one Pittsgrove school; first- and second-grade classes held in the Elmer school leased to and operated by Pittsgrove; and third through fifth-grade classes in another Pittsgrove school. The appellate panel agrees with the commissioner that this arrangement was within the authority expressly and impliedly delegated to the boards.

— By Debra McLoughlin

Appellant Tracee Edmondson argued the cause pro se. For respondents: Elmer Board of Education — Jane B. Capasso (Lipman, Antonelli, Batt, Gilson, Malestein, Rothman & Capasso); Pittsgrove Board of Education — Kerri A. Wright (Porzio, Bromberg & Newman; Vito A. Gagliardi Jr. of counsel; Wright and Raquel S. Lord on the brief); Commissioner of the Department of Education — Paula T. Dow, Attorney General (Joyce D. Williams, Deputy Attorney General, on the statement in lieu of brief).