By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City’s student population continues to decline and is unlikely to snap back because an upscale housing market simply makes it too expensive for young families to live in the beach resort, a top school official said Saturday during an annual report.
As much of the city’s adult population flirts with retirement age, the number of school children has fallen sharply and is now only about a quarter of what it was in 2000, Board of Education President Dan Tumolo said.
Tumolo blamed the downward trend in students on an upswing in the city’s housing market, now marked by an average home price of about $642,000. He said the cost of housing in Sea Isle remains a barrier to younger families, forcing them to seek more affordable homes in Cape May County’s mainland communities.
“Our school children are leaving the island and heading to the mainland,” Tumolo told members of City Council during a special Saturday meeting that preceded Sea Isle’s annual Community Day celebration.
Sea Isle closed its public school is 2012 due to declining student enrollment. It now sends most of its children to Ocean City’s public schools for their education, although some of them attend the private Bishop McHugh, Wildwood Catholic, Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep schools in Cape May and Atlantic counties.
Altogether, there are 109 school-age children living in Sea Isle now, compared to 250 in 2010 and 444 in 2000, Tumolo said. Of the 109 students, 78 attend Ocean City’s schools, 23 go to Bishop McHugh and six are enrolled at Wildwood Catholic. Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep each have one student from Sea Isle.
Tumolo discussed the declining student population during his annual presentation to City Council on the school budget. In an interview after the Council meeting, he predicted there will be no recovery in the number of school-age children.
“It can’t be reversed because the young people who want to live here can’t afford it,” he said. “It’s too expensive to live here.”
Tumolo cited demographic data showing how the median age of Sea Isle’s residents has climbed from 51 years old in 2000 to 58 in 2010 to 63 in 2016. While Sea Isle remains popular with affluent retirees and people who own vacation homes, the cost of housing remains out of reach for young families, he explained.
Young people are also discouraged from living in Sea Isle because career opportunities are limited in a largely seasonal job market inextricably tied to the summer tourism season, Tumolo said.
“Now, people who leave to go to college don’t come back,” he said.
However, he expressed some hope that the opening of the new Hard Rock and Ocean Resort casinos in Atlantic City this summer will create job opportunities at the Jersey Shore that may draw new residents to Sea Isle.
As Sea Isle’s student population has declined, so has its school budget. Tumolo said the budget was once about $4 million, but the 2018-2019 school spending plan comes in at about $2.4 million.
The school tax rate remains stable under the new budget, meaning that the owner of an average home assessed at $642,000 will pay $261 annually in school taxes.
“Let me allay your fears. There’s no tax increase for the sixth year in a row,” Tumolo told Council.
Tuition is the biggest expense in the 2018-2019 school budget, which was adopted by the Board of Education on May 1. The spending plan includes nearly $1.7 million for tuition to send Sea Isle’s students to other school districts.
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. Sea Isle’s public school then closed down.