Judge defends ruling against changing district types

ORANGE, NJ — When Superior Court Judge Tom Vena issued his final judgment on Monday, April 24, as well as his official opinion outlining his reasons for granting the injunction against the results of the Nov. 8, 2016, vote on Public Question No. 1, which changed the Orange School District from a Type 1 district — with a Board of Education appointed by the mayor — to a Type 2 district, where voters choose the board members.

Vena traced the genesis of the matter to a resolution adopted July 6, 2016, by the Orange City Council, which called for a referendum to change from a Type I to a Type II school district. And the judge identified another key difference in that Type I districts have a Board of School Estimate, a group in charge of budgets and spending, whereas Type II districts do not, meaning bonding for capital projects would have to be approved by public referendum.

In his ruling on Monday, April 24, Vena declared the referendum to make these changes null and void, and vacated it. In his ruling he further stated, “as a consequence of the referendum having been voided and because of the urgency of the need for capital improvements to the board’s facilities, bond ordinance No. 56-201 in the amount of $2,506,000, which was passed on Dec. 20, 2016 … is hereby reinstated effective immediately, without the need for further action by the City Council to do so.”

Specifically, Vena said in his April 13 opinion, that the Orange Board of Education, “argues that the public was not informed that the school district would change from a Type I to a Type II district, that the Board of School Estimate would be eliminated, that future bonding for capital projects would have to be approved by public referendum, that future bonding for capital projects would be based on the credit of the district as opposed to the City, that the size of the Board of Education would increase from seven members to nine, and that the first election of members of the Board of Education would take place in March 2017.”

“In light of all of this, plaintiff argues that the referendum was improper, was ‘procedurally and substantively flawed,’ and has resulted in a ‘direct and negative impact on the capital needs’ of the city of Orange Township’s school district,” Vena said.

“If voters wanted some clarity or further explanation on what changing from an appointed district to an elected district meant, they were disappointed when they read the interpretive statement,” Vena said. “Voters were essentially told what everyone already knows: with an election comes more control. The real question is what that control is over. This is precisely what was withheld from the voters on Nov. 8, 2016.”

And that’s why, Vena said in his April 13 opinion, he decided to side with the Orange Board of Education, represented by special attorney Stephen Edelstein, against the council and the Nov. 8 public question.

“For all of these reasons, it is the court’s determination that the true purpose of this municipal public question was not set forth in adequate detail so as to allow voters in the city of Orange Township to be sufficiently informed,” Vena said.

Finally, Vena said “the will of the people” cited by those opposing Orange Board of Education would be best served by granting the injunction and not upholding the results of the Nov. 8 vote on public question No. 1.