By Matthew Sockol
A petition for injunctive relief filed by the Upper Freehold Regional School District Board of Education against the Millstone Township K-8 School District Board of Education has been denied by a judge.
The two districts have a long-standing relationship in which students of high school age who reside in Millstone Township can attend Allentown High School in the Upper Freehold Regional School District.
The petition, which was submitted to New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe on April 18, concerned the Millstone board paying tuition for Millstone residents who enroll in specialized programs at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver. Upper Freehold claims the payment of that tuition is unlawful and claimed entitlement in the petition to a preliminary injunction that would order Millstone to no longer send and Red Bank Regional to longer receive students whose tuition is paid for by Millstone.
On June 14, Administrative Law Judge Sarah G. Crowley denied Upper Freehold’s request for injunctive relief and ordered that the Millstone students currently attending Red Bank Regional remain in their current enrollments.
As stated in Crowley’s ruling, 623 students from Millstone attend Allentown High School and Millstone pays $12,433 in tuition for each student; 16 Millstone students attend Red Bank Regional and Millstone pays $13,900 in tuition for each student.
Under state law, a request for injunctive relief requires the petitioner to suffer irreparable harm if the requested relief is not granted, the legal right in underlying the petitioner’s claim is settled, the petitioner has a likelihood of prevailing on the merits of the underlying claim and when the equities and interests of the parties are balanced, the petitioner will suffer greater harm than the respondent will suffer if the requested relief is not granted.
In her ruling, Crowley ruled that Upper Freehold did not satisfy the requirements to receive injunctive relief. According to Crowley:
• Upper Freehold argued it would suffer irreparable harm because it is not clear Hespe can award the district monetary damages in this matter, but other avenues, such as Superior Court, can provide monetary relief to the district. Additionally, Upper Freehold argued its reputation is being harmed because Millstone is not sending some of its highest achieving students to Allentown High School, but there has been no demonstration this has occurred.
• Upper Freehold argued the legal right is settled because Millstone may only modify the send-receive relationship with Hespe’s approval, but Millstone claimed it is not seeking to modify the send-receive relationship and is instead taking advantage of opportunities available to its students. Millstone argued the courses of study pursued by the students at Red Bank Regional are not offered at Allentown High School, which Upper Freehold contested in its petition. As a result, the case involves an analysis of what constitutes a course of study and whether the courses of study taken by Millstone students at Red Bank Regional are provided in Upper Freehold.
• Upper Freehold argued it will succeed on the merits of its underlying claim because it offers a course of study in every discipline that Red Bank Regional provides, but it is unclear what constitutes a course of study and more factual analysis is required to determine if an adequate course of study exists in Upper Freehold.
• Millstone will suffer greater harm if the injunctive relief is granted because Upper Freehold’s harm is monetary and avenues of relief are available to the district, whereas the harm of taking 16 students out of their current school is significant and arguably irreparable. Upper Freehold argued that the interests of the students and/or their parents should not be considered in determining which entity will suffer greater harm, but the judge disagreed and could not find case law to support this contention.
Under state law, Hespe is authorized to make the final decision on Upper Freehold’s petition and may adopt, modify or reject Crowley’s order. If Hespe does not adopt, modify or reject Crowley’s order within 45 days after its submission, the judge’s order will become the final decision.
A verified petition filed by Upper Freehold on April 8 that requested the commissioner to order Millstone to no longer send and Red Bank Regional to no longer receive students whose tuition is paid for by Millstone remains pending.
Millstone has made tuition payments to Red Bank Regional for 15 years, according to district administrators.
On June 21, Millstone Superintendent of Schools Scott Feder, Business Administrator Bernard Biesiada, board President Margaret Gordon, Vice President Kevin McGovern and board member David DePinho held a special meeting to provide information about the legal matter with residents and answer questions.
According to a presentation at the meeting, Millstone initiated dialogue with Upper Freehold around October 2014 to develop a send and receive contract and Upper Freehold ceased contract talks in September 2015. During the send and receive negotiations, Upper Freehold did not seek any changes from Millstone.
Upper Freehold sought a joint board meeting in November 2015 and did not list Red Bank Regional High School as an agenda item, according to the presentation.
On May 12, 2016, Gordon said the two school boards had agreed to hold a joint meeting on May 16, but after the legal action was filed, the Millstone board decided that on the advice of counsel, the meeting would be delayed until such time as the pending litigation was resolved.
The presentation also discussed issues Millstone had with Upper Freehold, including matters regarding the status of special education students from Millstone at Allentown High School; a denial of access to student records; and efforts to obtain the student achievement data of the Millstone students.
Resident Marc Braverman asked why the public was not notified sooner about the lawsuit.
McGovern said the board’s first obligation was to assemble a legal team and draft legal documents for a defense, a matter he said was made more urgent due to Upper Freehold’s petition for injunctive relief.
Braverman objected to the amount of money being spent on attorney fees and suggested that the Millstone board open a dialogue with Upper Freehold.
McGovern, who is an attorney, said a dialogue can lead to places that cannot be controlled and he said once litigation is initiated, the reasonable course of action is to communicate through counsel. Attorneys are currently responsible for communications between Millstone and Upper Freehold regarding the send and receive relationship.
Residents Nicholas Romeo and Mark Gjonbalaj asked what prompted Upper Freehold to file suit against Millstone.
Feder said Millstone’s representatives could not speak for the actions of the Upper Freehold board.
Gjonbalaj asked if Millstone could replicate its relationship with Red Bank Regional with another school.
McGovern said district administrators would have a greater understanding of their rights when a decision on Upper Freehold’s lawsuit is made.
Kaajal Ajmani, who said her experience with Allentown High School had not been pleasant, said she wanted to make certain she would not be forced into sending her children to the school.
McGovern said the Millstone board is fighting for her right not to have to send her children to Allentown.