MONTAGUE — The Montague Board of Education is dropping the legal effort it began over two years ago to end its send-receive relationship with High Point Regional High School.
The 5-2 vote, coupled with the recent placement of Montague's superintendent on paid leave, signals the latest policy shift on the seven-member board following its restoration of the April budget vote.
The vote to drop the litigation with High Point was supported by Board President Barbara Holstein and members Denise Bogle, Dale Bouma, Paul Brislin, and Danielle Christmann. It was opposed by Glen Plotsky and Jennifer VanNess, who said she is resigning in protest.
"The children and taxpayers are the ones who are losing out," VanNess said. "This goes against all of my moral and ethical beliefs."
The board accepted VanNess's resignation and said it would advertise the vacancy. It has 65 days per state law to appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of VanNess's term, which expires next April. If no one is appointed, the executive county superintendent will appoint a candidate.
Montague, a one-school district serving students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight, petitioned the state education commissioner in December 2019 for approval to end its relationship with High Point Regional, in Wantage, so it could go back to sending students in grades 9-12 to Port Jervis High School in New York.
A subsequent lawsuit by Montague, filed December 2020, accused High Point of bad-faith obstruction of its petition, which was not ruled on and is now a dead issue.
Montague's resolution directs its legal counsel to "immediately withdraw the board from the above-referenced actions" and "cease the performance of any and all actions related to termination of the board's sending-receiving relationship with High Point Regional Board of Education."
The action all but eliminates the possibility of Montague resuming its relationship with Port Jervis, where it sent its students in grades 7-12 for decades before signing the agreement with High Point in 2013 and expanding from a PK-6 to a PK-8 school in 2015.
High Point has been notified of Montague's decision to drop the legal action, confirmed High Point Superintendent Scott Ripley.
"Obviously it's a relief to us that we will not be incurring anymore legal fees for silly reasons," said High Point Board President Wayne Dunn. "We are encouraged to begin some dialogue with Montague about where we go from here."
The High Point agreement was controversial in Montague when first signed in 2013. Over the next two years, the entire Montague board was replaced by new members who hoped to restore the relationship with Port Jervis.
High Point later took legal action to stop Montague from doing so, culminating in a 2015 settlement with a grandfather clause that allowed a handful of Montague students to finish out their education in Port Jervis.
In March 2018, High Point filed new legal action accusing Montague of withholding $150,000 in overdue tuition for two special education students.
The dispute was settled in November 2018 with Montague agreeing to make the payments and High Point agreeing not to hinder Montague's future efforts to get out of their relationship.
Montague accused High Point of breaking that promise last year when High Point filed a legal brief with the commissioner outlining the financial and educational harm it would suffer if Montague's petition were granted. High Point said it wasn't opposing Montague's petition; it said it was merely presenting issues for the commissioner to consider before deciding.
It was Plotsky, as Montague board president two years ago, who revived Montague's efforts to end the High Point relationship. He said abandoning those efforts is a terrible mistake.
"I think this is a horrible idea and don't understand throwing away the money we've already invested in the litigation," Plotsky said. "They (High Point) agreed to release us in the future from the send-receive agreement, and then they did everything in their power to stop us from terminating that relationship."
Restoring the Port Jervis relationship would have reduced the tuition Montague pays for its high school students and once again enabled them to qualify for in-state tuition at both New York and New Jersey public colleges, Plotsky said. Under New York law, graduates of New York public high schools pay in-state tuition regardless of residency.
"I understand there are people who are interested in sending their children to High Point, and I have no issue with that," Plotsky said. "The arrangement we were attempting to negotiate would have been a send-receive relationship with the Port Jervis City School District that would have allowed our children to also attend schools in New Jersey whether it be High Point, Kittatinny, Sussex Tech, whatever the case might be. It was the opportunity to give them choice."
Holstein, however, said maintaining the relationship with High Point is necessary to ensure every Montague student has a guaranteed seat at a New Jersey high school, something they didn't have prior to 2013. Montague students also can apply to attend Sussex County Technical School or another high school through the state's Interdistrict School Choice program, but the number of seats is limited and admission isn't guaranteed.
"These are lottery-based seats," Holstein said. "Children apply and they get accepted or they get denied. You're not guaranteed that seat. If Port Jervis wants to make an arrangement privately with people, that's their business but we do not have the obligation to pay for that."
Holstein herself voted for the original High Point agreement as a member of Montague's board in 2013. She later lost her bid for re-election but returned this year after running again and winning in November.
At the time it entered the agreement with High Point, Montague was the only New Jersey school district still sending its students across state lines for a portion of their education. Some, however, felt Port Jervis' academic standing had slipped to the point that the arrangement no longer was a benefit to Montague.
Eric Obernauer can also be contacted on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 862-273-5349.