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Elizabeth Board of Education v. The City of Elizabeth

A-0090-06T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

MUNICIPALITIES; SCHOOLS — Even though New Jersey has provided a constitutional right to education, a board of education has neither the right nor the power outside of the statutory condemnation process, to compel its municipality to convey land to it for school construction.

A municipality’s board of education worked to identify a suitable location to construct a vocational-technical high school to address overcrowding and congestion for its students. It found a suitable site, but alleged that at all times the municipality refused to entertain negotiations with the board to sell the site, and alleged that the municipality agreed to, but then rescinded its agreement to, provide assistance in finding another school location. One favored site was sold by the municipality to a private developer pursuant to a redevelopment plan and an ordinance was enacted as to that effect. The board subsequently filed suit challenging the ordinance. Its complaint chiefly sought to restrain the sale of the property to the developer on the basis that the sale contradicted the public good in utilizing public land for education.

The lower court ultimately dismissed the board’s complaint on a summary judgment motion, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division. The Court found that the board could not compel the municipality to rescind a transfer of public land under a constitutional right to education theory, when it failed to timely challenge the redevelopment determination of the property at issue or file for condemnation of the land. The Court held that it had no jurisdiction to order the municipality to transfer land to the board as it found no law that compels a municipality to sell property or negotiate with a board of education. It also found that the board should have either taken affirmative action with respect to the redevelopment statute or the statutory condemnation remedy in order to protect asserted constitutional rights to education. In such proceedings, it would have been able to get a determination as to what was the property’s paramount public use. Furthermore, the Court held that any asserted reliance by the board on representations made by the mayor was misplaced since the mayor had no authority to transfer or sell, or to offer to transfer or sell, municipality owned property. Only the governing council possessed such rights. The Appellate Division distinctly stated that it saw no judicial process that could be drawn from the acknowledged constitutional right to education that would allow a board of education to compel its municipality to convey land for school construction, outside the statutory condemnation process.

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