New Jersey voters on Tuesday narrowly agreed to take on the debt to provide an additional $350 million to the state’s county vocational schools to increase enrollment and program offerings.

Although it lacked support in The Press coverage area, the $500 million Securing Our Children’s Future bond referendum was approved by 52 percent of the state.

The majority of the bond will be offered to the state’s vocational schools through a yet-to-be defined grant program that includes a 25 percent cost share for the school, according to Atlantic County Institute of Technology Superintendent Phil Guenther.

“We are very, very happy that it has passed and that it will hopefully enable county vocational schools throughout the state of New Jersey to expand opportunities for students,” Guenther said Tuesday.

Proponents of the legislation say more career-focused training will fill a need for employees in manufacturing and technical fields. It will also address the capacity needs of vocational schools that turn away more than 17,000 applicants each year, according to figures from the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“This will be a game-changer for workforce development in New Jersey and will provide a tremendous boost for our state’s economy,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, in a public statement Wednesday.

Guenther said ACIT turns away about half of its 1,000 applicants annually. He said the local vocational school would like to accommodate more programs that are aligned with the county’s economic development plan, such as aviation maintenance, as well as auto body, diesel mechanics, health sciences and building trades.

He said the fact that the grant would cover 75 percent of the cost of expansion is particularly attractive because the school is usually only eligible for 40 percent state reimbursement for capital projects.

“We are working with an architectural firm, and we’ve been in the planning process for well over a year as we’re looking at our long-range facility needs,” Guenther said, although cost figures were not yet available.

He said he is still awaiting word on how the grant process will work.

The bond, first proposed by Senate President Steve Sweeney at $1 billion, was halved over the summer by Gov. Phil Murphy, who cited the state’s current debt load.

Of the $500 million, $350 million will fund county vocational technical school expansions and enhanced K-12 school security, $100 million will upgrade water quality in school districts and the remaining $50 million will go to community colleges.

According to the NJSBA, New Jersey voters haven’t rejected a bond referendum since 2007, when they turned down borrowing $450 million to support stem cell research.

On Wednesday, Moody’s released a public finance election recap and noted the bond passage in New Jersey as a “credit positive.”

“The additional funds will allow the community colleges to expand and improve facilities used for career and technical education programs,” the report stated. “Additional state support has the potential to assist the colleges in bolstering enrollment through the expansion of career and technical education programs.”

The vote Tuesday was narrow, with 1,084,057 in favor and 975,032 against, the latest unofficial results as of Thursday show.

Locally, there was not much support for the bond. Opponents of the bill have cited the state’s debt and the financial burden on the taxpayer on social media and in letters to The Press.

“While we understand concerns about borrowing, this investment will produce a positive return for our state,” Savage said. “As young people fill long-vacant jobs, launch careers at higher salaries and continue to earn more over their lifetimes, they will pay more in income taxes. And as companies see New Jersey developing a pipeline of skilled workers to meet their needs, they will be more likely to expand or relocate here.”

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

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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