MAYS LANDING — Administrators from the Greater Egg Harbor Regional and county vocational school districts met Monday to discuss the impact of tuition increases.
Instead, both sides aired grievances in a cordial, but at times biting, exchange that lasted nearly two hours.
Greater Egg out-of-district tuition is $9 million, or 12 percent of its 2018-19 budget. It is the third-largest expense the district has, behind salaries and benefits. This year, the district is budgeting to send 433 students to ACIT at $7,400 per student, or $3.2 million in tuition.
Greater Egg board members chastised the Atlantic County Institute of Technology for its enrollment growth. ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther criticized Greater Egg for spending on a new high school and offering similar programs to those at the vocational school.
In one exchange, Greater Egg Superintendent John Keenan, saying he was a fan of what vocational schools could offer, wanted to know why ACIT couldn’t accept students above the ninth grade. Guenther said scheduling would be difficult and students are on a four-year track.
“I can help you with scheduling if you like,” Keenan replied.
The discussion, part of the Greater Egg board’s regular meeting, was the result of several years of complaints from the regional high school district over increasing tuition, which Keenan says is related to ACIT’s continued expansion.
Greater Egg officials, who oversee Absegami, Cedar Creek and Oakcrest high schools, said they want to see the vocational school cut back on its growth to reduce the financial impact on sending districts.
“You have control of your enrollment,” Keenan told Guenther. “I think it would be important to look at the county and all the districts that are struggling with your tuition adjustments.”
ACIT believes it is fulfilling its obligation to county residents by offering more seats. Guenther said there are 1,000 eighth-grade applicants this year for ACIT, and they only accept half of that. He said ACIT has no plans to stop growing, but hopes the governor’s promise to fully fund its state aid will reduce the financial impact it has on sending districts such as Greater Egg.
“If we were funded as we were supposed to be, there’s a very good chance that the tuition for our sending districts would be significantly lower,” Guenther said.
ACIT will grow again in the 2018-19 school year, with anticipated enrollment at 1,640. And over the next few years, Guenther said, ACIT could serve an additional 300 students.
For the past few years, the Greater Egg district has complained about the financial burden of sending its students to ACIT, which this year is anticipated at $4.5 million, including transportation costs.
In the fall, the two districts went to court after ACIT sued over Greater Egg’s reduction of bus stops for vocational students, a move Greater Egg said was meant to save $150,000 in the 2017-18 operating budget.
A major factor in the dispute between the schools is the annual tuition rate adjustment, a charge to the sending school district from ACIT based on state-certified tuition rates. In the past two budget cycles, Greater Egg has received a 46 percent and a 44 percent higher “adjusted tuition rate.” In 2016-17, ACIT initially charged a tuition rate of $6,200, but then adjusted that rate to $9,776.
This year and last, Greater Egg has deferred some of that adjustment payment to ACIT to balance its budget and save programming.
ACIT Business Administrator Lisa Mooney said she has seen no discernible pattern in the way the state calculates its certified tuition rates, making it hard for the district to anticipate the following year’s rate.
Mooney said the biggest tuition adjustment was from the 2015-16 school year, when the district transitioned from self-contained classrooms to inclusion for special education students. That tuition increase was not felt until the 2017-18 budget.
Another sticking point was the fact that local school districts are held to a 2 percent state-imposed budget cap while the vocational school is not, leaving local districts to pick up the tab when ACIT needs more revenue. Meanwhile, county funding and state aid have remained stagnant over the past three ACIT budgets.
“We can’t increase revenue, so we end up cutting programs. But it sounds like your rationale is to increase our costs to send students to you (in order) to balance your budget,” Greater Egg board member Peggy Capone said.
After the meeting, Guenther said he hoped the board listened to ACIT’s position and gained some understanding about the programs ACIT offers.
Keenan said it was admirable of Guenther to attend the school board meeting and try to clear the air.
“I think it went very well,” he said. “I would have liked to have more time.”