Court rejects Oradell school pullout

BY ASHLEY KINDERGAN
NorthJersey.com, STAFF WRITER

A state appellate court has shot down Oradell’s bid to withdraw from the River Dell regional school system, a move that would have effectively dissolved the two-borough district.

In a unanimous decision last week, three judges from the Appellate Division of the state Superior Court affirmed the state Board of Review’s 2007 denial of Oradell’s request to call a referendum on a split.

The opinion said the board decided rightly that dissolution would leave River Edge with an excessive debt burden and Oradell with a haphazard grade configuration.

Vito Gagliardi, the lawyer representing Oradell, said he will be discussing with borough officials this week whether to ask the New Jersey Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

The issue also could be resolved by voters. Bergen County Superintendent Aaron Graham is charged with creating a plan to consolidate all districts that are not K-12 by 2010. The plan would need voter approval.

Each borough has a separate K-6 district and sends students to a regional high school and middle school. Oradell’s proposal called for River Edge to take over the middle school and become a K-8 district, while Oradell would take over the high school in a K-6, 9-12 district.

Oradell’s proposed configuration would have been the only such arrangement in the state.

River Edge would also inherit a middle school that needs $24 million in repairs, according to a long-range facilities plan River Dell submitted to the state in 2005. And River Edge would have to pay off a remaining portion of its debt for a $22 million renovation completed recently at the high school.

The two sides disagreed about what constitutes excessive debt. Gagliardi said the borrowing margin, or maximum allowable debt, should be the standard used to decide what constitutes excessive debt because it is the only objective guidepost.

The opinion will create problems for other districts considering reconfiguration, he said.

“The appellate division has said excessive debt burden can be measured in any way the commissioner of education decides,” Gagliardi said. “It makes it very difficult for school districts to consider whether reconfiguration is viable.”

Oradell argued that River Edge would be able to afford its current debt load and inherited debt from the high school renovation. The borough also argued that the board should not have considered the possible future cost of repairs to the middle school.

The appellate judges disagreed, and so did River Edge officials.

“I don’t know how River Edge residents would have dealt with that,” Councilman Thomas Smith said. “It would have been a huge amount of money.”

Oradell politicians and residents have said they pay an unfair portion of the regional district’s taxes. Although River Edge pays a greater share of the levy, fewer Oradell students attend. Oradell residents pay about $5,700 more per student than River Edge residents in the current school year.

The average school taxes, however, are about the same.

An Oradell household assessed at the average of $271,000 pays about $3,875 in school taxes this year.

A River Edge home assessed at that borough’s average of $461,000 pays roughly $3,642.

The River Dell district is funded based on the total property values in both boroughs. State law also allows districts to use a per-pupil formula or a combination of property values and per-pupil costs.

Oradell Councilman Andrew Rudman said the borough tried unsuccessfully before filing a lawsuit to change the funding method.

“Oradell’s desire was never really to dissolve the district,” Rudman said. “The only way to get tax equity is to do what we’ve been doing.”

River Dell Superintendent Patrick Fletcher said he would like to see the conflict end.

“I’m hopeful that the matter is now closed, and we can, as a district and as two communities, move on,” Fletcher said. “[The case] has consumed resources which we could use elsewhere.”