FROM THE ASBURY PARK PRESS:
ROBISON: How, exactly, should a ‘school’ be defined?
The complex world in which we live demands clarity in the definitions that are used, and, proper application of those definitions during the decision making process. One such case is the question of exactly what constitutes a school.
The importance of this issue is readily apparent in Lakewood, where there are now over 125 nonpublic schools, and land use laws that permit a school to placed just about anywhere. Less than one-third are listed on the New Jersey Department of Education website as a recognized or accredited school.
However, the importance of clear definitions that are properly used is pertinent to every municipality and school district. The impact of poor definitions, or disregard for clearly established definitions, on the local planning process and the taxpayers’ burden is significant.
The crux of the issue pertaining to schools is captured in the question: Does an entity that provides any form of education automatically qualify as a school or must that entity meet standards that have been developed by the state Department of Education, various statutes and subsequent court decisions?
There is a fundamental difference between a religious education center and a school. While the former is an absolutely essential element in our society, where freedom of religion and separation of church and state are cornerstones of a functioning democracy, such centers should not automatically qualify for various forms of support such as the busing of students or other state and local aid.
The religious education that occurs must be in addition to, and not in place of, the basic education that is required to be provided by a school before public support of any kind is provided. Dare I say a “thorough and efficient” education must be provided?
We must also constructively differentiate between vocational education and religious education at the secondary level. Entities such as the Ocean and Monmouth County Vocational School Districts do provide career training but they also provide basic academic training in-house or in concert with a local school district. These districts meet the compulsory education requirements.
In comparison, I submit that meeting the requirements of ordination in just about every faith requires study above and beyond the secondary level at an accredited university such as Beth Madresh Govoha or Princeton Seminary. Religious education at the secondary level and beyond, which is the choice of the student or parent, is above and beyond the compulsory education requirements established in New Jersey.
Similarly, if an applicant to a local zoning board of adjustment incorrectly defines a religious education center as a school, then the special privileges and considerations afforded to an inherently beneficial use should not apply.
The value of being treated as an inherently beneficial use must not be underestimated. It is significant. Depending on the specific wording of the local planning and zoning ordinance(s) an inherently beneficial use provides an opportunity for exceptions to established zoning standards without having to outline the positive and negative criteria that may result from the proposed project.
Zoning requirements play a major role in establishing the character of a neighborhood not to mention the market value of the land and improvements in that neighborhood. The burden of proof must rest with the entity claiming to be a school in order to be treated as an inherently beneficial use before a local zoning board.
Defining an entity as a school for either public funding or treatment as an inherently beneficial use does not create an undue burden. For example, in the case of secondary school-age children does an entity claiming to be a school issue a diploma that is sanctioned or recognized by the state? For both secondary and elementary age school children is there a curriculum that is actually implemented by a state approved teaching staff that provides basic instruction that will allow a child to advance academically and grow into a contributing member of society?
Every school board and municipal governing body has an excruciatingly difficult challenge when it comes to balancing the need to provide public services with the need to minimize tax rates. This job should not be made more difficult through imprecise definitions that lead to questionable allocations of public monies or inappropriate decisions affecting local development, which in turn generate a greater burden on municipal and school service delivery.
Frederick W. (Rob) Robison is a former borough administrator in Roselle and Atlantic Highlands. He lives in Lakewood.