BY JOHN SNYDER
OF PASCACK PRESS
PASCACK VALLEY, N.J. — A Woodcliff Lake plan to hold a referendum on pulling out of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District took on new life Dec. 5, when the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the matter filed by two other district towns.
Voters here and in Montvale, and in Hillsdale and River Vale—both of which filed objections to the referendum—could head to the polls on the question as early as March, Mayor Carlos Rendo told Pascack Press on Wednesday.
Rendo described the court’s move as “a win-win for the residents of Woodcliff Lake” in part because he predicted the referendum will fail, as did a similar one in 2010.
“We will probably lose because we have the fewest residents. Then we can go back to the courts asking for relief. We will again request that we enter into a send/receive relationship with the district,” he said.
Rendo said the town’s plan to pull out of the district—which per state law is funded under a formula based on equalized property values—and reapproach it based on the number of students registered (called send/receive), would be fairer and less expensive.
Well, less expensive for Woodcliff Lake.
Rendo said such a change to the funding scheme would save his taxpayers “$3 million to $6 million” annually while continuing a rewarding relationship with the award-winning district.
Woodcliff Lake attorney Vito Gagliardi Jr., who has represented other Garden State municipalities in school funding disputes, said that all four district towns would vote and that the referendum will be run by the school district under direction of the Executive County Superintendent of Schools in consultation with the district member towns.
He said that should the referendum fail, as seems likely, Woodcliff Lake could then seek relief in the courts or the legislature.
“In order to pursue a remedy you need to exhaust your legal options first. […] There is the likelihood of litigation over this,” Gagliardi said.
Asked who would be party to hypothetical litigation, Gagliardi said, “With all due respect I don’t know that I’m going to lay out my litigation strategy to a reporter this early in the process.”
The state Department of Education’s Board of Review granted Woodcliff Lake’s petition to pursue this referendum in March 2014.
A similar referendum both Woodcliff Lake and Montvale promoted in 2010 failed. Montvale is not on board with this one.
Woodcliff Lake and Montvale students to go Pascack Hills High School in Montvale. Hillsdale and River Vale students attend Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale.
According to district figures, the district’s 2017-2018 school year budget is $55.8 million, with $48.8 million to be raised by levy.
The district’s per-pupil cost as of 2015-2016 was $26,145, according to the state Department of Education.
Woodcliff Lake property taxpayers, in the 2012-2013 school year, paid nearly double per student when compared to Hillsdale property tax payers, according to a January 2013 feasibility study commissioned by Woodcliff Lake. That study showed the district’s average cost per student that year was $21,100, while the cost to specific communities varied: Hillsdale, $15,750; River Vale, $18,050; Montvale, $25,600; Woodcliff Lake, $30,250.
“Of course [other district towns] are going to vote against it [the referendum]; their taxes will go up,” Rendo said.
Indeed, a 2010 study suggested taxes in Montvale, Hillsdale, and River Vale could go up by less than $380, under district funding alternatives then considered.
Woodcliff Lake property taxpayers, in the 2012-2013 school year, paid nearly double Hillsdale’s per-student cost, according to a January 2013 feasibility study Woodcliff Lake commissioned.
Officials from Hillsdale and River Vale pointed out earlier this year that their towns once paid a majority of the district’s costs, explaining shifting demographics and large corporate campuses in Woodcliff Lake and Montvale have shifted property values since the district’s formation.
Alternatives to withdrawal have been studied over the years. Asked whether a preferable alternative might yet exist, Rendo said, “I would think there is but we have to go by what our attorneys tell us.”
Leaders react to court move
Hillsdale Mayor John J. Ruocco told Pascack Press on Wednesday he was disappointed in the court’s decision, adding he believed that “in the end, the voters of the four towns affected will realize that Woodcliff Lake’s proposal to withdraw from the district will jeopardize the quality of education” offered to all residents in the district.
“Should a referendum be held in 2018 as now appears likely, Hillsdale will ensure that the voters of all the towns understand the issues and the risks of changing an educational structure that has served the district’s residents well for decades,” he said.
Ruocco said “parents, students, colleges, and potential employers all appreciate the value of a PVRHS education,” which enhances property values.
He said “changing that now because Woodcliff Lake does not want to contribute the amount that state law requires them to pay […] is short-sighted.”
He also said Woodcliff Lake “should not be allowed to roll the dice with the future of a PVRHS education in an attempt to achieve a ‘de minimus’ savings at the expense of residents in Hillsdale, River Vale, and Montvale.”
River Vale Mayor Glen Jasionowski said in a published report that his town “will not be deterred from taking all necessary actions to preserve the high quality education that our children receive and have received in the Pascack Valley Regional School District for over 50 years,”
He vowed River Vale would “vigorously oppose the referendum and we believe the voters throughout the district will reject the folly of breaking up one of the state’s highest performing school districts.”
Before he resigned, former Hillsdale Mayor Doug Frank commented to Pascack Press on the need to fight the referendum at the courts.
“All experts have confirmed the obvious: if Woodcliff Lake is successful in this endeavor, the high school will need to implement substantial changes that will detrimentally impact programming and staffing at the high school.”
He added, “Why Woodcliff Lake would take steps that would cause irreparable damage to the high school still confounds me.”
Asked about this concern, Gagliardi said, “No, That’s nonsense. I’ve heard that argument many times in the past 25 years. It’s always false.”
‘It’s out of my hands…’
Send/receive communities that constitute more than 10 percent of the student body, as is the case with Woodcliff Lake, are given seats on regional district school boards per state law, Gagliardi said.
David Steinberg, the school board’s representative from Woodcliff Lake, told Pascack Press on Thursday he wasn’t sure what a successful referendum might mean for his town’s representation.
“I honestly don’t know. It hadn’t been discussed,” he said.
He added, “The Board of Education doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is a matter for the four municipalities to work out. It’s out of my hands.”
Superintendent of Schools Erik Gundersen told Pascack Press much the same thing earlier in the year:
“The Board of Education has no authority in determining how the funding formula is determined and instead has continued to focus on the unifying topic of continuing to provide its students with strong educational experiences.”