TRENTON – The Council on Local Mandates on Tuesday decided by a 5-3 vote it would not take jurisdiction in a dispute over whether a public school district was still required to provide transportation aid to children attending non-public schools.
The public school district of Springfield in Union County had to pick up substantially much more of the transportation funding for approximately 144 children who attend non-public schools after the state cut its share of transportation funding.
The district gives in-lieu-of-transportation aid to parents whose children attend school elsewhere.
Vito Gagliardi, the attorney representing Springfield school district, said a Feb. 18 memo from the Department of Education stated that the state would no longer provide substantial per-pupil funding for township children who attend non-public schools and the township had to pick up the costs.
Because the district would no longer receive much of the funding, Gagliardi argued that it basically resulted in an unfunded mandate, and therefore the Council on Local Mandates should take jurisdiction of the issue.
Up until two years ago, the state covered approximately 60 percent of the first $710 in per-pupil costs. The state also covered 100 percent of all additional per-pupil costs between $710 and $884, after a statute, NJSA-39-1a was adopted by the Legislature in 2001. The state still provides that portion of funding.
But last year, the state stopped providing much of the funding for the first $710 in per pupil costs, leaving the local district to pick up the dropped financial ball.
The school district tried to argue that providing aid was contingent upon receiving state funds.
However, the attorney representing the state, Chris Huber, argued that Gagliardi was “circumventing” the statutes by focusing on the memo, which wasn’t the issue.
“Striking down this memo will not relieve them of this mandate,” he said.
Huber added that the state has never “fully” funded transportation costs for students who attend non-public schools. He said last year, the Springfield school district received state aid that would cover some 20 percent of the transportation costs for the students attending non –public school districts.
After returning from a 15-minute recess, John Sweeney, who heads the council, said the council determined by a narrow vote it does not have jurisdiction. A full opinion will follow in the days to come, along with the minority opinion.