Why are nine Seaside Park students attending Toms River Regional schools for free, instead of going to schools in their Central Regional sending district?
That's what Central Regional school district and Berkeley Township municipal officials would like to know.
"We're still trying to figure that out," said Francis J. Campbell, special counsel for the Berkeley Township Council.
The arrangement for the nine students was apparently made during Michael J. Ritacco’s years as superintendent. Ritacco, a Seaside Park resident, resigned in October 2010, the same day the FBI charged him with bribery and tax evasion.
"There was some type of agreement worked out with Ritacco, Seaside Park and the parents," Campbell said. "We are trying to find contracts."
The sending district would normally pay tuition to the receiving district, which is zero dollars to Toms River in this case. The issue would be lost tuition dollars for Toms River Regional, while on top of assuming the cost of educating the students. Toms River Regional announced its per-pupil cost to educate its enrollment is $10,375 per student, according to 2009 figures, the most recent available.
Berkely Township Council members passed a resolution at their Feb. 22 meeting asking the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to approve a "special circumstances" request made by Central Regional Business Administrator Kevin O'Shea that the nine Seaside Park students currently attending Toms River schools be included in the Oct. 15, 2010, Application for State School Aid (ASSA) count for Central Regional.
Not including the nine students in Central's ASSA count would increase Central Regional's tax levy on the taxpayers of the four other sending towns by $421,00 beginning on July 1, Berkeley Township Council President Karen Davis said.
"Berkeley's portion of the $421,000 in lost aid would result in a $340,000 tax increase, which is totally unacceptable," council Vice President Carmen F. Amato, Jr. said.
"Right now this is a siphon scheme to pull students from Central Regional to Toms River...through a back-door method," Campbell said. "They can't do this. I can't believe that taxpayers in the Toms River school district aren't making this an issue."
Toms River resident Carol Benson urged board members to look into the matter further, and said a tuition-free sending agreement is unfair.
“I don’t have a problem with them because they are from Seaside Park," Benson said. "I do have a problem with the F-word: Free. You need to look at the fairness of such an arrangement to taxpayers. There’s another F-word: Fair.”
Toms River school board attorney Thomas E. Monahan said at the February meeting that a state statute permits school boards to admit students from outside the district, and to decide the rate of tuition, including not charging their sending district at all.
“There’s one statute that allows the Board of Education to take students in with or without tuition," Monahan said. "And it’s up to the board to decide whether it wants to do so."
Seaside Park has been a sending district of the Central Regional school district since Central Regional was formed back in 1954, Campbell said. Prior to that, Seaside Park students went to Toms River schools. But the Toms River district grew so quickly, there was no longer any room for Seaside Park students. So they ended up going to Central Regional.
Until 1976, Seaside Park paid Central Regional through the "turnstile" method.
"Whatever number of kids you sent, you paid a per capita amount," Campbell said.
But things changed in 1976, after the state Legislature changed the tuition payment method for regional school districts from head counts to a formula based on an individual town's property values. The tuition payment change was gradually phased in over a five-period, Campbell said.
"Seaside Park didn't like it one bit," he said.
Seaside Park later filed suit against Central Regional in 2007, claiming that the tuition method was unconstitutional. But a judge later ruled against Seaside Park and dismissed the case. Thirteen individual Seaside Park residents appealed the ruling in October 2010. The matter is still pending, Campbell said.
"Kids who live within the Central Regional school district, in every town, they are residents of the Central Regional school district," he said. "They are entitled to a free public education in one sending district and only one sending district."
Two students from Seaside Park are enrolled at the high school and seven are enrolled at the middle school levels.
Toms River Regional Superintendent Frank Roselli said at a recent board meeting that the matter was an ongoing discussion with Central Regional school officials.
Toms River resident Dennis Galante has questioned the school board a number of times about the issue and has said the district needs to reconsider its sending agreement.
“We’ve been asking for two years, is this in the best interest of the district, for the Board of Education, for the superintendent, to decide to do this?” Galante said.