Up-Island school district approves $8.9 million budget

Up-Island regional school committee members and school administrators met December 19, at the Chilmark Community Center. Left to right, they are Amy Tierney, Laurie Halt, Mike Halt, Michael Marcus, Jim Weiss, Dan Cabot, and Skipper Manter. — Photo by Janet Hefler

The Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee approved a fiscal year 2013 (FY13) operating budget following a public hearing at the Chilmark Community Center Monday night.

The draft budget of $8,959,543 discussed at the hearing will be adjusted to reflect changes the school committee voted.

The budget’s final numbers will include the addition of $192,686 for a food service program at West Tisbury School next year. To offset the new program’s cost, the committee added $114,575, the amount anticipated for school lunch sales, to the revenue side of the budget. They also agreed to offset increases to the budget with $100,000 from excess and deficiency (E&D) funds.

Before Monday night’s addition of funds for the food service program, the draft budget was up about 7.38 percent over the UIRSD’s FY12 budget.

The final budget will be certified at a meeting on January 9, which starts at 6 pm at the regional high school. The school committee also voted to stick with the district’s regional agreement for determining each town’s assessment, instead of using the state’s statutory formula.

School lunch challenges

A new food service program at West Tisbury School would replace one currently run by Chartwells, the food service management contractor for Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) since 1992.

Food for the district’s two schools in West Tisbury and Chilmark, which don’t have kitchens, is prepared at the regional high school by Chartwells staff, put into containers, and transported by van.

The school committee had already agreed at a previous meeting to add $100,000 to the FY13 budget to renovate and enlarge West Tisbury School’s kitchen. That would allow for lunches to be prepared on-site for the two up-Island schools. With both expenses approved, the goal is to complete the kitchen renovations next summer and start up a new food service program in September.

Although school committee members agreed with the idea of a food service program to go with the new kitchen, the sticking points were the timing, cost, and funding.

Island Grown Schools (IGS) program coordinator Noli Taylor and other IGS leaders, along with a group of up-Island parents, spearheaded a push for the new kitchen and also an independent lunch program. As part of the Island Grown Initiative, the IGS program promotes locally produced food, healthy eating habits, and education about food and agriculture for Island school children.

Ms. Taylor proposed that the school committee also include funds for food service and staff in a discussion about the FY13 budget at the committee’s meeting on December 13.

At that time superintendent of schools James Weiss informed the school committee that a special education student would require residential care in an off-Island facility next year. Since the student divides time with parents who live in Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury, the two towns’ school districts will each pay $97,554 of the total cost of about $195,000 per year.

With that expense in mind, along with the cost of the kitchen renovation project, school committee chairman Daniel Cabot of West Tisbury and committee members Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury and Perry Ambulos of Chilmark voted against a proposal to add $120,000 into the budget for the food service program. Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah and Michael Marcus of West Tisbury voted in favor.

An about face

The committee did an about face at the public hearing Monday night and voted 4 to 1 to add funds for the program. Ms. Ackerman provided the tipping point in favor of the decision with the suggestion that E&D funds be used to offset the cost.

In discussion before the vote, Mr. Ambulos said he had a change of heart after talking to his son when he got home from last week’s meeting.

“He said the food was inedible that was served at West Tisbury School that day, and I had just cast a vote against changing the food service,” Mr. Ambulos said. “We have as much of a responsibility to provide a nutritious lunch to our kids as we do to provide what’s in the classroom,” he added.

Mr. Weiss said he and Ms. Tierney looked at the figures again and were of the opinion the food service program would cost about $192,000, rather than $120,000 as estimated previously. That would include salaries for three part-time food service workers at West Tisbury School and one at Chilmark School.

Mr. Weiss said he came to the meeting thinking that the kitchen renovation and food service program should not be done in the same year.

“I would still be, if Roxanne had not thought of using E and D, which allows you to avoid a big one-time additional expense,” he added. “Next year you will have the food service cost in the budget but you won’t have the $100,000 in kitchen renovations.”

In keeping with his longstanding position of many years, Mr. Manter, a veteran school committee member who is also a West Tisbury selectman, objected to using E&D funds for anything other than an emergency.

“This is not an appropriate expenditure for E and D; this is a capital expenditure,” he said in casting his dissenting vote. “I’m saying ‘nay’ because of the funding source, not because of the kitchen.”

Community members weigh in

Before Mr. Cabot closed the public hearing, the school committee listened to many comments from the audience of about 25 people.

“The reason to make this change now is the quality of food for the up-Island schools is not up to snuff,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s not in line with the values of our community. It’s time to make the changes that we need in the food served to our kids.”

Ms. Taylor said a number of skilled electricians, contractors, and builders have offered to donate their time to the kitchen renovation project, after July 4. “The donated labor would save the school district a huge amount of money, and this labor may not be available in the future,” she pointed out.

“I don’t think it’s fair my kids get a lunch that’s subpar; it’s not warm, it’s in a brown bag,” said Molly Glasgow, who runs Grey Barn Farm in Chilmark with her husband Eric. “I know it’s a lot of money for the community, but a kitchen is the first step towards making the Island more sustainable as a whole.”

“There is a dietary crisis in this country, with a rise in obesity, diabetes and other health issues that have mushroomed in the last six years,” Ted Bayne of West Tisbury noted. “We’re not rushing into this kitchen issue; we’re late, we’re behind.”

West Tisbury FinCom member Greg Orcutt reminded the school committee that West Tisbury has a capital improvements committee that utilizes a five-year planning process for projects that cost more than $25,000. He said it would be helpful for the town to have more advance notice from the school district about major projects in order to plan funding.

Mr. Orcutt also pointed out that the school district only recently incurred a $1.5 million debt for an exterior renovation project at West Tisbury School last summer.

“It’s a tough year for capital improvements, with plans for a new library and police station, plus old school debt,” he said.

Comparing apples and oranges

In a follow-up discussion about the meeting Tuesday with The Times, Ms. Tierney said that based on audit documents she received the day before, she expects the UIRSD will have about $450,000 available in its undesignated fund balance, also known as E&D. The district is allowed by state law to keep 5 percent of the next year’s operating budget for FY12 as E&D funds, she explained.

When asked about the cost of the UIRSD-run food service program versus Chartwells, Ms. Tierney said it would be very difficult to compare the two until UIRSD’s has been up and running, because they are such different types.

Chartwells contract expires at the end of FY11. When MVPS put the contract out to bid, Chartwells was the only responder. It is a division of Compass Group North America, a national foodservice management and support company.

A few months ago MVPS awarded Chartwells a one-year contract, with two one-year extensions. The contract also included the caveat that the UIRSD might withdraw from the food service program sometime during the contract period.

Under the current contract Chartwells receives $44,000 a year to operate and manage food service programs at the regional high school and up-Island schools. Lunches cost $2.75 for students and $3.75 for adults.

MVPS pays Chartwells its management fee and reimburses the company monthly for the cost of labor, food, and other expenses accounted for in the high school lunch program’s bookkeeping. MVPS is guaranteed to break even, as Chartwells covers any deficit for the high school lunch program out of its management fee, Ms. Tierney said.

The UIRSD budgets $13,000 to pay two Chartwell’s employees who help package the up-Island schools’ food at the high school and transport and serve it.

Some expenses, however, such as the cost of cooking food and prepping salad bar items for West Tisbury School, are not separated out from the high school’s lunch program expenses, Ms. Tierney said.

Chartwells currently transports the food to West Tisbury and Chilmark at a cost of $17.50 a day and $3,150 a year for each school.

While those expenses can be subtracted from next year’s budget, Ms. Tierney said the district would incur other expenses in a move from Chartwells for items such as serving trays, dishes, and a walk-in freezer.

Given that food service workers at Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury schools are unionized, and Chartwells just recently, Ms. Tierney said it was likely workers hired by the UIRSD would be, also.

Ms. Tierney said Chartwells has allowed Island staff to purchase local produce when available, and has made every effort to respond to requests and suggestions made by the MVPS.

“Chartwells worked hard to get the program at West Tisbury School implemented,” she added. “It went from 60 meals served a day to 120.”