GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The Greater Egg Harbor Regional school board approved a preliminary 2017-18 budget at its meeting at Absegami High School Monday that will trim programs and raise property taxes.
But it was another school, the Atlantic County Institute of Technology, that got the most attention.
More than 400 students from the GEHR district attend ACIT, and the cost is not free. While ACIT gets some state aid and a subsidy from the Atlantic County government, sending districts also pay tuition.
Districts estimate the tuition amount each year based on projected enrollment and costs, but then the amount is audited the next year to get an exact total.
GEHR now owes $1.2 million in addition to the $3.1 million projected for 2017-18, though ACIT agreed to accept the payment over two years.
Board member Peggy Capone was vocally upset about the audited amount, saying it represented a 45 percent tuition increase from ACIT. Meanwhile, the GEHR district has to trim almost $4.7 million to stay within the cap.
“What kind of bind are we in long term?” she asked. “What happens if tuition is raised again next year? ACIT is balancing its budget by passing the cost on to us.”
She said many residents don’t realize that when a child attends ACIT, the district has to pay the tuition.
ACIT Superintendent Philip Guenther said they try to control tuition, but the increase happened because of a change in the way the school educates special education students.
Vocational schools can no longer ask if a student requires special education services when they apply. As a result, the district revamped its program to put students into regular education classes, plus provide extra resource room services as needed. That raised the total cost of the program, which was passed on to the sending districts.
He said GEHR also underestimated the number of students who would attend and has to pay for 47 additional students.
The final audited tuition was $8,738 for regular students and $11,652 for special education students.
One thing on which officials in both districts agree is that flat state aid is making the tuition issue worse.
ACIT’s state aid has not increased even though enrollment has increased 164 percent. The school got about $3.8 million in state aid in 2009 when enrollment was 566 students. It got $3.7 million in 2016 when enrollment was 1,494.
“If we got more state aid, then tuition would be lowered for all the sending districts,” Guenther said.
GEHR is especially hard hit by the adjustment this year because it has so many students who attend the school. The district has also lost students due to casino closings, and is down almost 500 students — some 13.4 percent in the last five years.
GEHR Superintendent John Keenan said there will be cuts for next year in almost all areas at the three high schools, Oakcrest, Absegami and Cedar Creek. Details will be presented at the public budget hearing May 1 after the budget is reviewed by the county office.
“We went through it line by line and spread the cuts around,” Keenan said. “But we did not lose any programs.”
Overall, the GEHR tax levy will increase to the 2 percent cap, or an extra $620,833.
The total estimated 2017-18 budget of about $66 million is down $1.6 million from this year, but taxes will increase based on the ratable base adjustments from each participating town.
The district is also expecting less tuition revenue from Port Republic and Washington Township due to decreased enrollment.
Mullica Township will be hit the hardest, with an estimate annual increase of $79.50 per $100,000 of assessed property value. The annual increase in Egg Harbor City will be $11.70 per year, in Galloway Township it will be $10.90 per year and in Hamilton Township it will be $6.60 per year.