Drama budget, budget drama
A student stood at the Performing Arts Center in November and offered to cut off his hand if it would avert a proposed reduction in music and theatre staff at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. A group of concerned parents has declared that principal Peg Regan has it in for the performing arts program, and warns that the reductions she has proposed for this year are the beginning of the end for a tradition of excellence at the high school.
Okay - it is, after all, the drama department we're talking about here, so some histrionics might be expected. But I'd suggest that this moment represents only the first of many difficult conversations to come, and it suggests that we need to find better ways of having these conversations together.
Parents of music and drama students, by petition, have placed articles on the annual town meeting warrants in Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Aquinnah, asking voters for money to restore the staffing cuts in the performing arts. They're gathering signatures on petitions to seek money at special meetings in the remaining three towns. They're also exploring alternate means - grants, fundraisers - to restore the budget.
This is uncharted territory. There's no protocol for restoring money to a specific school department that the budget process has taken out. But for the schools, there's lots of uncharted terrain ahead. After decades spent grappling with growth, suddenly we're finding that shrinkage is just as problematic.
Enrollment at our high school has peaked, and an era of decline has begun. Two years ago, 822 students attended the regional high school. Enrollment is 766 this year and expected to fall to 720 next year - and the New England School Development Council forecasts that high school enrollment will decline, over the next decade, to about 600.
High school leaders now face pressure from two directions. Town finance officials ask why school budgets climb while enrollments fall; community groups organize to advocate for their favorite programs.
Public education is a people business. Seventy cents of every dollar spent on education pays salaries and benefits for school staff. Thus any effort to control school costs becomes a discussion of staffing - a discussion uniquely painful here on the Vineyard.
It's because we're a small community: When the principal cuts a drama teacher to three-fifths time, we know her not just as a budget line item, but as a neighbor and friend. And we know that when a teacher is laid off, it means more than a longer commute to another school as it might on the mainland - it means wrenching changes, perhaps a family's departure from the Island.
Ms. Regan's decision to cut the high school drama and music staff has gotten plenty of ink in the local press. (In the end, the department has been trimmed by nine-tenths of one full-time position.) Far less attention, however, has been given to other reductions across the high school staff.
Last year the high school let a social studies teacher go. A math teacher, on leave, was not replaced. The summer work schedule of the high school guidance counselors was cut from 32 days to 15. A culinary arts teacher who left was not replaced. The high school cut its English Language Learning program by one teacher, and a teaching assistant who left was also not replaced.
Of all these reductions, the only one to generate more than a peep of public outcry has been the cut in hours to the guidance staff. But together, these cuts suggest it's inaccurate to say that the music and drama programs are somehow being singled out.
A decade of painful choices lies ahead for high school leaders, whose challenge will be to conserve the overall quality of the program as enrollment falls and budget pressures escalate. The temptation will be to borrow from strategies already playing out in schools across the state: larger class sizes and user fees for everything from parking to sports. Another danger is a public dialogue driven by parent factions formed around favorite programs, squabbling over shrinking resources.
The least painful way to adjust school staffing is by attrition. But teachers don't conveniently reach retirement at the right moment, in the right disciplines, to keep a school running efficiently. And if administrators choose a policy of letting new hires go when the time comes to cut teaching staff, this will weaken a whole generation of teachers in our public schools. It's hard enough to find young teachers willing to settle here despite the cost of Island living; if every new teaching job is structured as a one-year post, we risk driving away the best and brightest prospects.
At the regional high school, a group of perhaps 20 teachers will be reaching the point of retirement in the next five or six years. These are teachers who will be missed, but their departures also represent an opportunity. A strategy of carefully crafted buyout offers could encourage them to time their exits on a schedule that helps the high school trim its staff without decimating the generation of teachers who represent the future of our public schools. Superintendent Jim Weiss's cabinet of principals has discussed this, but has never brought a proposal to the regional school committee. It's time now to take this idea past the talking stage.