A “Case of First Impression”: Who Bears the Cost of a Special School Election?

In re December 9, 2014 Special School Election, 439 N.J. Super. 416  (App. Div. 2015).  The City of Cape May sought to withdraw from a limited purpose school district that educated students from the City and two other municipalities.  The City petitioned the Department of Education for permission to conduct a referendum as to whether the City should withdraw from the school district.  That petition was granted.  When the Cape May County Clerk wrote to the City seeking payment for the cost of that special referendum election, the City responded that the cost should be borne by the school district.  Unsurprisingly, the school district disagreed.

The County filed a declaratory judgment action that sought a determination as to who was responsible for payment.  The Law Division agreed with the City and required the school district to pay for the referendum.  The school district appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed.  Judge Carroll wrote the opinion, which was issued today.

The parties cited competing statutes in support of their respective positions.  Since this “case of first impression” was “a question of statutory interpretation,” Judge Carroll invoked the de novo standard of review.

After reciting some of the fundamental principles of statutory interpretation, Judge Carroll focused first on N.J.S.A. 18A:13-51 to -81, which “articulates the process to be followed when a municipality seeks to withdraw from a limited purpose regional school district.”  Though those provisions were silent as to who pays for an election held for that purpose, N.J.S.A. 18A:13-57 refers to that election as a “special school election.”  Judge Carroll then turned to N.J.S.A. 19:60-12, which states that all costs “for any school election held a time other than the time of the general election shall be paid by the board of education of the school district.”  Under N.J.S.A. 19:1-1, “school election” includes any “annual or special election,” and “special election” is defined as “an election which is not provided for by law to be held at stated intervals.”

Since this election was not one “provided for by law to be held at stated intervals,” Judge Carroll found that the three statutes cited above “clearly obligate” the district to pay for the election.  And though a review of legislative history was unnecessary given the clarity of the statutory language, Judge Carroll carefully went through that history and found that it “strengthens [the panel’s] conclusion.”