By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City’s student population continues to fall and is now less than a third of what it was in the early 2000s, reflecting a demographic shift in the shore town’s upscale housing market, a top school official says.
Dan Tumolo, president of the Board of Education, believes the downward trend will continue in the foreseeable future because Sea Isle remains popular with retirees and professional couples who don’t have children.
Tumolo said young families simply can’t afford pricier homes in Sea Isle and other seashore towns in Cape May County. Instead, they are buying less-expensive housing in the mainland communities.
“Younger people can’t afford it. We are changing from a multiple-family town to husbands and wives who have no children and to retirees,” Tumolo said in an interview.
Tumolo detailed Sea Isle’s declining student population during a presentation on the school budget to City Council on May 31. He said there are now 83 local students from kindergarten to 12th grade who are sent to the Ocean City school district, down sharply from a total of 267 in 2002.
“I don’t see the number going up,” he said.
Demographic studies done in the 1990s predicted the declines in student enrollment because of the higher-priced housing, he noted. The average home in Sea Isle is now assessed at about $660,000, figures show.
Declining enrollment prompted Sea Isle to begin sending all of its students to Ocean City in recent years instead of continuing to operate its own school system, Tumolo explained.
“We are entirely a sending district now,” he said.
While 83 students are sent to Ocean City’s public schools, a smaller number of pupils from Sea Isle attend the private Bishop McHugh, Wildwood Catholic, Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep schools in Atlantic and Cape May counties. Altogether, there are 134 school-age children living in Sea Isle, Tumolo said.
Tuition remains the biggest expense in the 2016-2017 school budget, which was adopted by the Board of Education on May 3. The nearly $2.6 million spending plan includes about $1.8 million in tuition to send local students to schools outside Sea Isle. Transportation costs are the second-highest expense at $485,980, budget figures show.
As Sea Isle’s student population has declined, so has its school budget. Tumolo said the budget was once about $4 million. Budget spending fell when Sea Isle began sending its students in grades fifth through eighth to Ocean City in 2010, followed by third and fourth grades in 2011 and first and second grades in 2012, he said.
For the 2016-2017 school year, total operating expenses have declined 1.2 percent compared to 2015-2016. The Board of Education was able to save nearly $31,000, mainly by consolidating transportation services and eliminating one bus run, Tumolo said.
The school tax rate will increase slightly. That means the owner of a typical home assessed at nearly $660,000 will pay about $274 annually in local school taxes, compared to $254 last year, budget figures show.
“It’s a rather miniscule increase in the rate,” Tumolo said.
He attributed the increase in the school tax rate to the city’s property revaluation last year.
Tumolo said the budget maintains a healthy reserve of about $468,000 for emergency situations.
New budget spending includes funds for a mental health program at Ocean City High School following two student suicides. Another new initiative includes a “creative innovation project” that will see students in first grade and up analyze a community issue and propose ways to fund it, Tumolo said.