SNOW HILL — Out-of-county residents attending Worcester public schools could face a tuition increase in the near future.
“I’m worried about the cost,” explained County Commissioner Virgil Shockley during a budget meeting with the Board of Education on Tuesday.
According to Shockley, students from outside of Worcester that choose to pay to attend its schools are costing the county a lot of money.
The current annual tuition for an out-of-county student to attend public school in Worcester is $6,169 a year. If that student is out-of-state as well, the cost is $7,165. However, Shockley pointed out that the actual cost per pupil to educate a student in Worcester is approximately $12,000.
“The tax payers are footing the rest of the bill,” he said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes confirmed Shockley’s numbers, but brought up the fact that out-of-county students are responsible for their own transportation and have to pay more than $6,169 if any special education or consideration is required. Thus, out-of-county students actually cost less than the average of $12,000. He also added that non-resident students are not factored into the Maintenance of Effort (MoE) budget, which requires individual jurisdictions to fund the same level per student than the prior year.
Despite not being included in the budget, Shockley was still concerned that non-resident students were something of a burden to the county since they did make use of time and supplies.
“When you bring that student in, you’re using a slot,” he said. “They’re taking up space.”
Shockley tempered the statement by admitting that he didn’t blame the students or wish to deny them the best education possible.
“They want to go to our schools,” he said, adding what he took issue with was how cheap their tuition was compared to their per pupil cost.
When questioned, Andes revealed that there were only 14 out-of-county students using Worcester public schools last year. However, he did add that there were an additional 18 out-of-county students who, because they are family members of school system employees, were allowed to attend county schools at a reduced tuition of only about $1,000.
While such a privilege is considered a general benefit for school employees, Shockley was surprised by the scope of it. “That’s a huge benefit,” he said.
Between those 32 students, there was an estimated $262,000 difference in what non-resident students paid in tuition compared to their average per pupil cost, though the number would be less once things like transportation fees were removed from the equation. Still, Shockley estimated the cost being taken on by the county was in the $200,000 range.
Andes agreed that tuition rates might need a reexamination and said that he would forward the commission’s suggestion to the Board of Education. He explained that the tuition schedule had been in place even before he took his position 15 years ago and has only been adjusted for inflation since then.
Even more than the discrepancy between tuition and education costs, the commission took issue with the fact that there were non-resident students actively sneaking into Worcester County schools without paying anything.
“We have individuals who will go to any means to attend our schools,” said Andes. “People will falsify documents … This has been a frustrating experience for all of us.”
“These are people that you’re always going to have,” agreed Shockley.
According to Andes, though, the number of non-resident students actually trying to attend county schools illegally was “very small” and that the school board had a number of watchdog measures in place to guard against unauthorized attendance.
“We’re very vigilant,” said Andes.
Andes told commissioners that reports of illegal attendance were always investigated. There are also random state audits of student files. A large number of unregistered non-resident students likely come from less deceitful situations, Andes added.
A few hypothetical examples he used were divorced parents where one child remains in county while the other moves away or if grandparents or a secondary relative have full or partial custody of a child.
In those kinds of scenarios, Andes said that school jurisdictions can be hard to establish, but Andes did promise that the Board of Education would do its best to investigate any possible cases of illegal attendance.