UPDATED: Sussex Tech school board tables proposed cuts

SPARTA. More than 100 students, parents, alumni and staff members criticize a plan to cut three shops during a six-hour meeting.

Sparta /
| 23 Apr 2024 | 04:13

After listening to more than 100 students, parents, alumni and staff members criticize a plan to cut three shops at Sussex County Technical School, the Board of Education unanimously voted to table the proposal at its meeting Thursday, April 18.

The plan calls for eliminating the school’s programs in architectural technology, graphic communications and theater arts, effective July 1, “for reasons of efficiency and economy.”

Some speakers during the six-hour meeting said they were told only a week earlier of the cuts because of a $800,000 deficit in the district’s proposed budget.

Ending the shops would be a betrayal of the students enrolled in them who would be forced to switch to another shop and catch up on the material they have missed or to return to their sending district, some speakers said.

Students from throughout the county are eligible to attend Sussex Tech. They may apply for the various programs, or shops, in areas such as engineering, cosmetology, law and public safety, and robotics and mechatronics. The students’ sending district pays tuition to Sussex Tech.

’Time to reflect’

At the April 18 meeting, school board president Jarrod Cofrancesco said he and other board members want time to review the comments. The board’s next meeting is Thursday, May 16.

”It’s been an informative evening. I appreciate everyone’s comments. This board listened to what you had to say. Personally, I’ve analyzed it, and I would like some additional time to reflect on it as it appears some board members would as well,” Cofrancesco said.

He pointed out that he has “full faith and confidence” in the school administration. “We’re not the first institution to have a budget crisis, a budget challenge. ... People have to make decisions.

”I know I have questions. I know my fellow board members have questions. I know our administration is competent and talented. They’ll answer our questions, and collectively we will find a pathway forward,” he added.

Unlike members of other school boards, the Sussex Tech board members are not elected - they are appointed by the Sussex County Board of County Commissioners.

County commissioners

Earl Schick, who was appointed to the commissioners board in February, said the board is “going to look into everything that you all talked about today.”

”And yes, a couple people had mentioned it: We do work for you, the taxpayer.

”Rest assured, we are going to do as much as we can do as commissioners overseeing” the school.

Then he read a statement from that board, saying that while the Board of County Commissioners does not have oversight of the operations of Sussex Tech, it does provide funding and appoint members of the school board.

”The Board of County Commissioners did not cut funding to the Sussex County Technical School for fiscal year 2024,” the statement said.

It pointed out that state aid to the school has been flat while other districts have seen cuts in state aid.

”We were encouraged to recently hear of increased enrollment and a proverbial waiting list of students to get in at about $2,500 a head, which would increase tuition revenue. But recently, we learned of this extreme deficit.

”The Board of County Commissioners remains committed to the Sussex County Technical School and the school community.”

The board asked the Sussex Tech administration to provide an update on recent developments to the commissioners board at its next meeting, which was scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 24 at the Sussex County Administrative Center, 1 Spring St., Newton.

Schick and Commissioner Jack DeGroot attended the meeting April 18. DeGroot’s brother is a Sussex Tech graduate.

Job prospects

Speakers pointed out the three shops selected to be closed are in areas with significant job openings.

John Cays, associate dean for academic affairs at NJIT’s Hillier College of Architecture and Design, said he drove to the meeting after hearing that the shop may be closed.

“This program has a long history of sending smart, enthusiastic and well-prepared students” to NJIT’s architecture program, he said.

“Over the next 30 years, we will build or renovate one New York City every 30 days. Given this tremendous growth, job prospects in architecture are expected to be very strong and the profession needs Sussex County students.”

Allison Ognibene, an adjunct theater professor at Sussex County Community College, said she has seen phenomenal work done on the Sussex Tech stage “by these fine theater majors.”

“This school is the foundation for these students to get real jobs in an industry that is vital,” she said, listing about a dozen positions in theater, such as directing, casting, stage managing, choreographing and designing.

Paul DeMott of Wantage, a 1985 Sussex Tech graduate whose daughter is a junior in the theater arts program, criticized the board for proposing to close the three shops.

“This school is a family. What you folks are doing by cutting these shops. You don’t carve out from your family. You take of your family.”

He pointed out that the theater arts students solicited money from businesses to help fund the recent musical, “Curtains.”

”In the course of a week, from you submitting your budget to the county commissioners, where’d the $800,000 go? ... Please reconsider. Something can be done.”