News FeatureSea Isle City between a rock and a hard place
County nixes budget, but school can't afford to open with administration slashed
Published in the April 04, 2012 issue
Sea Isle City — Over the past two years, the relationship between the Ocean City and Sea Isle City school districts has been growing.
For 2012-13, that arrangement is coming to a screeching halt, even though neither side wants it to end.
Sea Isle high school students have attended Ocean City High School for decades and over the past few years that relationship has expanded to include Sea Isle’s fourth to eighth graders.
Since September 2010, Ocean City has provided administrative services to Sea Isle City’s school district in a shared services arrangement. This year, Ocean City provided all administrative services, including a principal, superintendent and child study team.
In preparing its budget for the 2012-13 school year, Sea Isle City included funding to pay for Ocean City to continue its administrative role. The school board sent the budget to the office of the county executive superintendent of schools for approval.
The county did not approve the budget, sending it back for a “fatal edit.”
The problem? Administrative costs.
Sea Isle City budgeted $287,528 in school administrative costs for next year. Administrative costs include paying a superintendent, principal and/or chief school administrator, Child Study Team services, business administrator, office staff, auditor, legal services and other expenses including the district’s internet, telephone, technology expenses and more.
The county office cut those costs to $41,515.
Ocean City can’t provide the services for that little amount.
And it’s likely, Sea Isle board President Valere Egnasko said, that no other school district will either.
Without administration, Egnasko explained, the little Sea Isle school can’t legally open its doors in September.
While the county budget slashing caught Sea Isle board members off guard, the financial crisis did not.
The board began telling the public more than a year ago that this day was coming.
Now that it’s here, the board is in a tough spot.
Sea Isle has been working with Ocean City, and both districts have acknowledged the best answer is for Sea Isle students, from kindergarten through high school, to attend Ocean City schools. Both districts have been working diligently for more than a year to see that accomplished.
They can’t do it voluntarily, because the law would require Ocean City school district to take on all of Sea Isle’s tenured teachers. Ocean City Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Taylor has long said that while the students are welcome, taking the tenured teachers would cause Ocean City financial hardship.
Most of those teachers are long-term and therefore high on the pay scale.
The two school districts have been trying to get the state to forcibly shut down Sea Isle and expand the send-receive. If done by state order, Ocean City does not have to take on the teaching staff.
The districts have gone to the county executive superintendent of schools, sent letters to the state Department of Education and the governor’s office, appealed to state legislators and made a public presentation to the state Board of Education.
“The answer is pretty obvious to everyone, but no one wants to be the one that makes that decision,” Egnasko said.
With the county cutting Sea Isle’s administration budget to the point where it is likely the school can not operate, someone is going to have to make the tough choice, she said.
“We can not operate kindergarten through third grade here in 2012-13 with the current budget restraints,” Egnasko said. “We have asked the Department of Education to order the expanded send-receive.”
The deep cuts to the administration budget are due to a significant enrollment drop next year. In kindergarten through third grade there will be a maximum of 23 students. That also pushes the per-pupil cost over $59,000 per child.
On March 27, the Sea Isle school board voted unanimously to not accept the budget the county sent to them.
“Now how can any competent person, much less the county superintendent, expect us to operate a school on $40,000,” board member Jack Birkmeyer asked. “We should test his competency. It’s ridiculous.”
The board also agreed to renew the push to get someone at the state level to do what several board members said is “the only reasonable thing,” in forcing the school to close.
“This board of education has been waiting and pushing the state for a response to this problem since February 2010,” board solicitor Mark Toscano said.
“You have voiced your rejection of the county’s budget. You’re not going along with it,” Toscano said. “You can take that ‘no’ in a letter to everyone you’ve sent letters to before and ask them how they expect you to operate a school for $41,000.”
Egnasko also asked the school board to approve sending out RFPs (request for proposal) to other school districts, asking which if any districts would be willing to provide administrative services required and for what cost.
Acknowledging it was unlikely any district would fall within the $41,000 limit, Egnasko explained, “We don’t know exactly what will happen in September but we need to try and secure administration and need to demonstrate it is not possible to procure those services for $41,000.”
The board directed Toscano to take the board’s plight, and latest financial crisis, back to the state Board of Education. Toscano presented the school district’s situation to the state board several months ago.
In the meantime, the school board is proceeding with the budget and operating next year.
“We, as a board, have to proceed, as ridiculous as it seems, as if a miracle is going to happen and we will be able to operate in September,” board member Dan Organ said. “Regardless of whether we believe it or not.”