By JOHN T. WARD
Voters in Red Bank, Little Silver and Shrewsbury are scheduled to decide the fate of a $17.9 million capital plan for their shared high school later this year.
On Wednesday night, two Red Bank Regional High officials told an audience at the borough council meeting that a December 11 referendum is, in part, critical to maintaining a cash cow: tuition paid by non-district students.
Superintendent Lou Moore said approval of two-part referendum would provide funding for a new roof, a new turf field and 10 new classrooms.
The school’s Harding Road campus opened in 1975, after a move from what’s now Red Bank Middle School, and hasn’t had a change in footprint since then, said Moore.
It’s also become home to five Career Technical Education-certified academies — in visual arts, information technology, finance, engineering and early childhood education — whereas “most high schools don’t have one,” Moore said. And those academies draw in non-local students, most of whose home districts cover their tuition, which is expected to be $14,900 for the coming school year.
That revenue covers the entire cost of a running the academies, as well as all athletics and extracurricular activities, said Frank Neary, a Shrewsbury representative on the district board who chairs both its finance and buildings-and-grounds committees,
But with rapid growth in the in-district population of students, who must be accommodated first, a squeeze is on. Because of space constraints, in the last four years, RBR has had to reduce the number of of non-local students, with tuition revenue dropping in turn, Neary said.
Four years ago, “we were making over $4 million a year in revenue,” he said. But with in-district student population growth, he said, “we have less room to take tuition students. Less room, less students; less students, less money.”
Tuition revenue was down to $2.8 million in the last school year, and in the one that begins next month, it’s anticipated that “we’re going to be down again, I can tell you that,” Neary said.
As tuition income has fallen, the district has had to shift $1.2 million in costs to local taxpayers “that they never had to pay before,” Neary said. “That’s a big chunk of change.”
Enrollment is up 18 percent over the past five years, to 1,217 students, putting the school slightly over capacity, Moore said. With anticipated growth in enrollment from Red Bank, Little Silver and Shrewsbury over the next four years, to just shy of 1,400, tuition-paying students would be shut out, said Neary.
“That’s zero room for tuition students,” he said. “As we get closer to zero, that’s all money that has to be made up by the taxpayers.”
“We need to have a future-ready school,” Moore said, adding that a two-year process of studying facility utilization and other issues led to the proposed referendum. “Voting this down I think will have a a bad impact that will really hurt us.”
According to literature shared at the meeting, the referendum is split into two parts:
• the new roof, with an estimated cost to taxpayers after anticipated state aid, of $4 million; renovation of existing facilities ($4.6 million); and addition of 10 classrooms ($7.1 million); for a total $15.7 million.
• a turf field ($1.6 million); restrooms and concession stands ($730,000) for a total $2.3 million.
The second question can only pass if the first one does. The need for the stadium improvements was driven by the community demand, not a top-down determination by the board, Neary said.
Approval of both questions is expected to boost taxes by $23 per $100,000 of assessed property value in Little Silver; $23 in Red Bank; and $26 in Shrewsbury.
After 2023, however those increases would be trimmed — to $14 per $100,000 in Little Silver, $15 in Red Bank and $17 in Shrewsbury — as a result of the expiration of existing debt, Neary said.
If the referendums fail, the need for the roof won’t go away, and ongoing operations will have to be funded with non-tuition revenue, Moore said.
The RBR board next meets on Wednesday, August 22 at 7:30 p.m.