In a move that could prompt a legal battle, the Deptford school district has decided to stop covering tuition and transportation costs next school year for any new resident students to attend the Gloucester County Vocational-Technical School District.
The decision has sparked a furor among some parents whose eighth graders have applied to attend next year. The case also has garnered statewide attention because it could affect New Jersey’s 20 other county vocational-technical school districts, which enroll more than 35,000 students.
Beginning with the 2022-23 school year, Deptford said, it would no longer pay for students enrolled in programs at the county school if Deptford offers the same courses. Currently, Deptford has equivalent programs in health, engineering and computer science, and carpentry at its high school, the district said.
School districts are required to cover costs for their students to attend their county vocational technical schools. Deptford said the code doesn’t apply if the district offers similar programs, but county vocational officials believe Deptford has incorrectly interpreted the regulations.
“I’m not going to debate whether our program is better,” said Michael C. Dicken, superintendent of the Gloucester County Vocational-Technical School District, also known as the Gloucester County Institute of Technology. “This is our program and we stand by it.”
About 1,500 students from 19 districts in the county attend the school, located in a sprawling complex in Sewell. There are also a handful of students from Atlantic, Camden, and Cumberland Counties.
In a Jan. 28 letter to parents, Deptford School Superintendent Arthur Dietz said the district would continue to provide for students currently enrolled in the county program until their expected graduation. Students enrolled in programs not offered at Deptford High will not be affected, he said, unless the district creates the same program.
The letter went viral on social media with parents and alums weighing in on both sides. Some parents praised Deptford’s in-house vocational programs and supported the district’s decision.
Deptford spends about $649,485 for tuition for about 255 students to attend the county vocational school, about $2,500 per student, said Salvatore Randazzo, a district spokesperson. In addition, transportation costs about $100,000 a year, he said.
“The rationale is that, for some of these 255 students, Deptford is paying this tuition and transportation when a program deemed the same … is being offered,” Randazzo said. The potential savings for discontinuing tuition and transportation to the institute was not provided.
Jackie Burke, executive director of the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools, disagrees. The county programs offer hands-on, career-focused learning in disciplines such as culinary arts, automotive, performing arts, and business and finance. The district has an obligation to pay to send its students regardless of whether the programs are the same, she said.
But, she said, ”It’s not the same. They can’t offer the breadth and equipment.”
Based on similar cases, the matter will likely land before the state Department of Education for a resolution. According to Dicken, in litigation involving districts in Cumberland and Hunterdon Counties, the state ruled in favor of the county programs. He said the institute was hopeful Deptford would reverse the decision.
On Friday, Randazzo said, “There is no plan to rescind the notice at this time.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of Education did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Meanwhile, parents and students are caught in the standoff. Deptford eighth graders applied in January for the county vocational school and will learn in March whether they have been selected to enroll in the fall.
”It’s so not fair. There are so many other ways to save money,” said Amy Bell, whose daughter, Kadence, 13, attends Deptford Middle School. “I want her to be able to have a choice.”
Jennifer Regalbuto said her daughter, Brianna, 17, a senior, has had ”an amazing experience” at the county vocational school, and her son, Chase, an eighth grader, wants to follow in her footsteps.
”I just pray and hope that he gets accepted,” said Regalbuto. “I just hope that they don’t make it difficult for our children.”
In a letter to parents, Dicken sought to reassure them that the law was on their side: Students who plan to attend the county vocational school would not pay for tuition or transportation.
“My goal is to make sure every student who applies has equal access,” Dicken said.