Superintendent defends school choice program

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OCEAN CITY — State aid figures and school choice tuition rates released late Thursday, Feb. 23 were warmly received by Ocean City school district officials.

“We are almost back to where we were over two years ago in state aid, but that is in large part due to our school choice program,” Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said. “The good news is that the DOE raised our school choice tuition rate.”

Last year’s rate of $11,507 per student was raised to $12,333 per student, for a total of $850,777.

The state Department of Education, not the school district, she noted, sets the school choice tuition rate. While the tuition rate is lower than what a state formula says it costs to educate the students, Taylor said the school district comes out way ahead by offering empty seats to tuition-paying students from outside the district.

“The DOE bases it on a K-12 formula,” Taylor said. “However, we don't have to bus these students to and from school, or pay for a late bus for them. Our transportation costs are going up 1.9 percent, so when you determine the tuition rate, plus the transportation costs, it may equal our student tuition rate for sending districts.”

The discrepancy between what Upper Township, Sea Isle City and Corbin City pay per student in tuition to Ocean City High School – $15,999 – and what the Ocean City district collects from the state per student for the school choice program – $11,500 – did not go unnoticed by former Ocean City school board President Dennis Mullen.

During public comment at a Feb. 22 school board meeting, Mullen took the administration and the school board to task over school choice and the budget. Mullen said he was upset that the district declined to push the budget to the 2 percent mandated cap, instead choosing to increase the budget by 1.75 percent.

“There’s very little difference,” he said.

With the cost of salaries and benefits continuing to go up, he said the “pie was shrinking” and one day, after they were long gone, the lack of funding would catch up to the district.

He noted that the district was charging students from Upper Township more than it was collecting from the state for students from other districts.

“Where does the other $5,000 come from?” he asked.

Mullen said he was a “pretty bright guy,” and in the business world, this sort of deal would be declined.

“If you starve the system, you have to make some pretty difficult decisions. There will be new board members and a new superintendent when this brick hits. When will you stop cutting? When will you have to tell someone that you have no money left?” he asked.

Mullen chastised officials for cutting 17.5 positions two years ago.

“You have no obligation to appease a tax organization that wants to cut taxes,” he said, in a shot to the local Fairness in Taxes organization. Salaries and benefits, he noted, were a large percentage of the budget.

“The pie gets smaller and smaller and then what happens? I wouldn’t want to be sitting there.

“If I lived in Sea Isle or Upper Township, I’d be wondering why I’m paying more,” he said. “Who negotiated that deal? As a taxpayer, I’m shocked.”

He said that “in the old days,” when he served on the board in the 1990s, the board used to have a dialogue with the community at the board table. With the board now declining to comment during public opinion, he said there would be more letters to the editor and warned that he would be “having some fun” by appearing at the board meetings.

Mullen said he had been content to sit the issue out, as his “time had passed,” but the phone calls kept coming, so he felt compelled to stand up for what he thought was right.

Taylor and board members did not comment on Mullen’s comments at the board meeting, but on Friday, Taylor defended the school choice program.

“If we didn’t have the school choice program, we’d have to go to cap and it would cost taxpayers more, and we’d still realize a shortfall of $375,000,” he said.

The shortfall, she said, would come from programs, possibly teacher and teacher-aide positions and other needed extras, such as upgrading security cameras and equipment.

“We couldn’t put money into our reserve account for a new roof and the HVAC system at the primary school,” she said. “There are upgrades we need to do to our technology. The following year we would have a bigger problem.”

Taylor said that the tuition from the school choice program, although not negotiable, helps the district.

“We have no say about it, there is no negotiating, but by filling empty seats we are bringing in revenue without adding to our costs,” she said.

The community, she said, has slowly lost year-round population, including families with small children. Upper Township, she said, is sending 30 fewer students next year. At $15,999 per student, that means a loss of revenue of nearly $480,000.

“If we didn’t have school choice, we would be out that much revenue,” she said. “If you add the transportation costs to the tuition provided by the state, you are right up to about what the state pays.”

Taylor said school officials are being responsible to taxpayers by coming in under, rather than right at, the state cap.

“Two years ago, we lost about $4 million in state aid, right out of the budget,” she said.

The district was forced to cut 17.5 positions, she said. Fearing what the future might bring, she said the school choice program was, in a sense, a gift for the Ocean City School District and the sending districts.

“We started with 14 school choice students for this school year,” Taylor said.

The district received a lot of positive feedback from the parents and choice students, but more importantly, the program had such a positive impact on the budget, that school officials decided to increase the number.

“So we have a total of 69 (students) for next school year,” she said.

The seats occupied by the choice students were otherwise empty. By filling open seats, she said the district can keep operating programs and maintain the quality of the schools.

“We only accept the number of students that we can accommodate,” she said. “Because of the school choice program, we are able to lower the sending district’s tuition rate by approximately $350 per student and we will reduce the costs per student of Ocean City pupils by the same rate.

“While we have taken other costs-savings measures, this school choice program helps us meet the needs of students in a manner in which the taxpayers can benefit,” Taylor said.

Preliminary budget to be introduced on Wednesday, Feb. 29

The school board will consider a preliminary budget for the 2012-2013 school year at a special meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 29 in the community room of Ocean City High School.

Business Administrator Tom Grossi discussed some elements of the proposed budget at the Feb. 22 school board meeting. Transportation costs will go up 1.9 percent, technology costs 0.5 percent. The district budgeted $31,330,412 for salaries and benefits for 2012-2013, up $156,735. This represents a 0.5 percent increase.

Benefits include medical insurance, dental insurance, employer social security and Medicare, tuition reimbursement, pension contribution and worker’s compensation.


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