NORTHFIELD — A freeholder committee will study how to resolve a dispute between the Atlantic County Institute of Technology and other high school districts over the vocational school’s planned expansion to more than 2,000 students.
The decision came after presentations by ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther and Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District Superintendent John Keenan at last week’s meeting held at Northfield City Hall, down the street from the freeholders’ usual meeting place at the county Stillwater Building.
Other districts lose resources for their own schools because they must pay tuition for their students who attend there, officials said.
“Why are we continually adding on to this school when other high schools in the county are suffering?” asked Democrat Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick.
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Democrat Freeholder Ernest Coursey said he agreed up to a point, but “we can’t tell folks where to send their kids,” Coursey said. “They have a right to send kids where they want. We ought to be talking about how to get high schools to implement some programs ACIT is implementing now.”
Keenan said his three-high-school district pays about $4.5 million to send 459 students to ACIT each year — more than any other district. He said its budgeting process is hampered not only by losing students but by tuition bills that increase dramatically years after original bills have been paid, causing unexpected expenses for which he cannot plan. Unlike his district, ACIT does not have to keep to a 2% cap on spending increases, he said.
Earlier in August, the Greater Egg school board unanimously supported a resolution calling for ACIT to “immediately cease” plans to expand until a comprehensive review of the local impact was completed.
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Guenther said ACIT is addressing the workforce needs of Atlantic County and would be giving up a unique opportunity if it doesn’t apply for millions in grant money available after voters passed a bond referendum for vocational education in last November’s election.
New Jersey voters agreed to bond for $500 million, with $275 million available for the state’s 21 county vocational schools to expand programs. The question failed in Atlantic County but passed overall.
“We are in the planning stages of applying for a grant for 75% grant funding,” Guenther said, adding the Department of Education hasn’t put out the application yet. “If we don’t apply for it, it will go someplace else in the state.”
Through the grant, ACIT plans to add programs for aviation maintenance, autobody repair, diesel technology, welding, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration. The school also plans to expand courses in construction grades, culinary arts, medical and dental, and health, science and medicine, Guenther has said.
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The expansion would add about 400 more students to ACIT’s current enrollment of 1,706, requiring an additional cafeteria, gymnasium, classrooms and outdoor space.
The state’s 21 vocational and technical high schools, including ACIT, are popular with students and parents. They get two applications for every one seat available, Guenther said.
Keenan said after the meeting that perhaps the grant application should be for funds to place some ACIT vocational programs in other high schools.
It is more cost-efficient to house the career and technical programs in one facility because they are equipment-intensive, Guenther said.
“Clearly something has to be done differently,” said Fitzpatrick, saying ACIT’s student body is diverse “and what we need in the county is more of that.”
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She suggested consideration of a countywide high school system.
“Somebody’s got to come up with new ideas and see what sticks on the wall,” Fitzpatrick said. She said a countywide district could offer magnet schools for science, arts, liberal arts, “so kids can go where they want.”
Freeholder Director Amy Gatto called it a shame that school districts are fighting one another.
“We have a county superintendent. He should be part of leading the conversation at some point,” Gatto said. “Another reason we are going to get into this potential conflict ... is because the state has failed to fully fund school districts.”
The fight over enrollment between ACIT and Greater Egg has gone on for several years and has included disputes over bus routes to ACIT.
Cumberland Regional High School fought legal battles with the Cumberland County Technical Education Center last year and was ultimately stopped from becoming a local vocational technical high school in order to hold onto students.