When Greater Egg Harbor Regional school officials began planning their budget for next year, there was one expense they couldn’t discount: $4.5 million in tuition and busing for the county vocational school.

That figure prompted a recent meeting between the two districts to hash out concerns. The result was Greater Egg board members learning that Atlantic County Institute of Technology didn’t have the same state-mandated limit on its budget increase by which the local districts abide. The tax levy cap for county vocational schools is applied only to the county budget, which funds a portion of the district, and not to the tuition it charges the local districts.

As enrollment and legislative support increase for career and technical education programs and state aid has remained stagnant, local school districts are burdened by increased tuition costs to pay for sending students out of district.

“For every student that chooses to go to the county vocational school, their home school loses that student in their enrollment count, which decreases the state funding to the home district, and the home district is responsible for paying full tuition costs to the technical school and transportation costs,” said Cumberland Regional High School Superintendent Steve Price.

Across the state, the 21 county vocational and technical schools are governed by legislation that requires them to open their doors to the residents of the county and requires the students’ home districts to fund the tuition and transportation to send them.

Judy Savage, executive director of the advocacy group New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said tuition for county schools is determined by the Department of Education.

“It’s regulatory. The amount they can charge per pupil is their cost per pupil less state aid, county tax revenue and any other source of revenue,” Savage said.

The tension between the local districts and the county schools bubbled over this year when two lawsuits were initiated claiming the local schools were trying to deter students from attending the vocational schools in order to save money. Both were worked out through mediation.

Vocational school enrollment

Source: New Jersey Department of Education data

*Cumberland County's vocational school is still in the process of expanding to a full-time school and is adding grade levels each year.

School Name Enrollment 16-17 Enrollment 17-18 Change % Change
ATLANTIC CO VOCATIONAL 1556 1610 54 3.35
BERGEN COUNTY VOCATIONAL 2221.5 2277.5 56 2.46
BURLINGTON CO VOCATIONAL 2016 2012 -4 -0.20
CAMDEN COUNTY VOCATIONAL 2015 2093 78 3.73
CAPE MAY CO VOCATIONAL 654 634 -20 -3.15
CUMBERLAND CO VOCATIONAL 419* 552.5* 133.5* 24.16*
ESSEX CO VOC-TECH 2147.5 2291.5 144 6.28
GLOUCESTER CO VOCATIONAL 1307 1402.5 95.5 6.81
HUDSON COUNTY VOCATIONAL 2364.5 2600.5 236 9.08
HUNTERDON CO VOCATIONAL 281 357 76 21.29
MERCER COUNTY VOCATIONAL 609.5 584 -25.5 -4.37
MIDDLESEX CO VOCATIONAL 2087 2075 -12 -0.58
MONMOUTH CO VOCATIONAL 2213.5 2196 -17.5 -0.80
MORRIS COUNTY VOCATIONAL 1054.5 1117 62.5 5.60
OCEAN COUNTY VOCATIONAL 1361.5 1327.5 -34 -2.56
PASSAIC COUNTY VOCATIONAL 3461 3481 20 0.57
SALEM COUNTY VOCATIONAL 826 774 -52 -6.72
SOMERSET CO VOCATIONAL 472.5 472 -0.5 -0.11
SUSSEX COUNTY VOCATIONAL 786 789 3 0.38
UNION COUNTY VOCATIONAL 1753.5 1833.5 80 4.36
WARREN COUNTY VOCATIONAL 456 464.5 8.5 1.83
TOTAL 30062.5 30944 881.5 2.85

ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther said his school is trying to meet student and parent demand while keeping costs minimal.

“Our growth has been incremental since we completed the addition and went full-time,” he said. “It’s been based on demand.”

Guenther said students want to attend vocational schools because of economic uncertainty.

“I think parents, especially in Atlantic County, went through a very, very difficult time with the economic conditions in our county and would like to see their high school students focused on a career area,” he said, adding there is also interest from employers and unions in the students coming out of his program.

Vocational school leaders say an increase in state aid would help reduce the burden on local districts tremendously.

And it’s not as though ACIT isn’t deserving: According to budget figures released by the Office of Legislative Services last month, the district receives $14.6 million less in state aid than what it should receive under the School Funding Reform Act if growth limits and adjustment aid were not in place. Under those same “what-ifs,” CCTEC should receive an additional $4.8 million.

The technical schools are not spending wildly on administrative costs, either. In fact, state data show that in most categories, ACIT’s per-pupil costs are below state average.

Savage said she is not hearing the same issues statewide that she hears in South Jersey between the local and county schools. She said the financial pressure schools are under for funding sources can add to the anxiety.

“There have been many years of level funding,” she said. “It’s coupled with tax levy caps. It’s coupled with rising costs, so yeah, resources are tight.”

Chris Kobik is the superintendent at Lower Cape May Regional High School, which stands to lose funding under a proposal from Senate President Steve Sweeney to revamp the school funding formula. He said that loss of state aid, coupled with declining enrollment and increasing costs to the district for the vocational school, would be devastating.

The local superintendents spoke to the benefit that vocational schools provide in counties but say legislation continues to favor expansion of the vocational schools, including a proposed bond referendum in 2018 for hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the county schools. Kobik called it “shortsighted at best” because it lacks increased funds to the local high schools.

Kobik, Price and Greater Egg Superintendent John Keenan have all said vocational schools are so successful because they have the option to choose their students. Keenan previously compared it to being a private school operating with public funds.

Guenther said students should be able to choose a program that meets their needs.

“When we look at where a student enrolls in school, it should be guided by what is best for the student and the parent who is making that choice,” he said. “It’s probably an asset for the entire county that students and parents have choices.”

Kobik has been a proponent for school consolidation, but said the situation has not gotten to that level yet.

Price added a solution will only be found when all stakeholders sit down together. He said he saw consolidation as a possible solution.

“I would go to more county-based school districts so that we are sharing the advantages to all the students in the county, not just the cream of the crop that can pass the entrance exam to our county technical schools,” Price said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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