MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ – Mountainside school officials may be seeking another high school to send its students to instead of Governor Livingston in the Berkeley Heights district, but actually implementing such a move is no easy task.

Speculation abounds as to why Mountainside has asked several other school districts within a 15-mile radius if they would be willing to receive Mountainside freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors at their high schools. Reasons range from disappointment by some in Governor Livingston High School's academic ranking, to residents questioning the per-pupil tuition rate Mountainside pays to send its high schoolers to Berkeley Heights.

Despite Mountainside's investigation into other receiving-district options, Helen Kirsch, President of the Berkeley Heights Board of Education, said back in June that her school district and Mountainside are currently in negotiations to renew a contract known as a send-receive agreement, which expires after the 2016-17 academic year.

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Mountainside has been sending its public school students to Governor Livingston for roughly the past 20 years.

Watchung Hills Regional High School school district is the only other district in the area publicly known to be discussing whether to answer a request for proposal (RFP) sent to it by Mountainside on the matter. See related article.

Timothy Stys, the business administrator at Watchung Hills, wrote in an email to TAPinto.net that it is “undecided at this time” if his school district will answer the Mountainside RFP, the deadline for which has been extended to mid-October..

However, should Watchung Hills decide to answer, he said, “at a minimum, the Board would have to prepare a revised demographic study.”

But even if another district, like Watchung Hills, is ready, willing and able to receive Mountainside students, Mountainside would first have to notify the state commissioner of education that it intends to sever its current send-receive relationship, according to Vito Gagliardi, attorney for the Berkeley Heights Board of Education. Notifying the commissioner means that Mountainside would then have to go to court.

“The law says that you cannot end a send-receive relationship without filing a contested case before the state commissioner of education, in which you prove that there would be no substantial negative educational, racial or financial impact on any of the communities involved,” Gagliardi said by phone on Aug. 20. “Whoever wants to end the relationship must file the lawsuit.”

Such lawsuits are argued before an administrative law judge, who acts as a hearing officer for the  commissioner of education, Gagliardi said. Once arguments are heard from attorneys and testimony is given by expert witnesses, the administrative law judge reports his or her “recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law” to the commissioner of education.

If the parties involved are not happy with those findings, the parties can file exceptions with the commissioner, Gagliardi said. The commissioner then looks at the administrative law judge's recommendations, looks at the parties' exceptions and makes a decision on whether to approve ending the current send-receive relationship. Approval from the commissioner is also required to enter into a new relationship.

The commissioner's “decision is a final decision appealable to the appellate division of Superior Court, just as you can appeal at trial court,” Gagliardi said. “There are cases when both parties agree to end a relationship but the commissioner of education would not allow the relationship to be ended.”

Gagliardi described filing a lawsuit to end a send-receive relationship and enter into a new one as “a fairly expensive proposition.” Besides legal fees, lawyers have to be paid, along with experts to write reports and appear in court. 

“It's certainly a couple of hundred thousand dollars, depending on the nature of the dispute,” he said. “That's why you don't see a lot of these cases, because they're expensive and the outcome is somewhat uncertain.”

“The process is set up in such a way to protect children,” Gagliardi said. “You want to have stability. You don't want to see these relationships beginning and ending and children being shuffled from one high school to another.”

Gagliardi did confirm that there have been recent discussions between the Berkeley Heights and Mountainside school districts regarding their existing send-receive agreement. 

He was also emphatic about explaining the difference between a send-receive “agreement” and a send-receive “relationship.”

“They are different,” Gagliardi said.

As an example, he asked hypothetically what would happen starting in the fall of 2017, after the send-receive agreement between Mounatinside and Berkeley Heights expired, if there was no new agreement in place and nobody filed anything with the commissioner of education.

“The law answers that question,” Gagliardi said. “Mountainside kids would still go to Berkeley Heights. Berkeley Heights would charge Mountainside a per-pupil cost. Mountainside would be obligated to pay the per-pupil cost.”