Up-Island school committee certifies $9.1 million budget

The Chilmark School is one of two schools in the Up-Island Regional School District. — File photo by Susan Safford

The Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee voted Monday, January 23 to certify a fiscal year 2013 (FY13) total operational budget of $9,129,943. That is an increase of $777,049, or 9.3 percent, over FY12.

The increase did not find favor with the West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom). Tuesday night the FinCom voted 3-2 not to recommend the budget to voters, following its presentation by a group of school administrators and school committee members.

The FinCom makes a recommendation either for or against budget articles that are presented to voters for approval at town meetings. The school budget will be taken up at the annual town meeting on April 10.

FinCom chairman Sharon Estrella told The Times there were a number of issues, including expenses for kitchen renovations at the West Tisbury School and a new food service program that would also serve Chilmark. “We’ll meet again with them in two to three weeks, so it may all be solved before town meeting,” she said.

Smoke and mirrors charged

The budget for the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools includes $8,739,402 in assessments for the district’s member towns, up by 5.76 percent over last year.

Aquinnah’s assessment is $739,637, an increase of $176,253; Chilmark’s is $1,994,530, an increase of $108,931; and West Tisbury’s is $6,005,234, an increase of $190,548.

The school committee agreed to offset the budget increase with $190,000 from excess and deficiency (E&D) funds, which reduced the town assessments by about one percent from a previous draft budget proposal dated January 9.

The committee’s lengthy discussion about the budget before the vote to certify it centered on how much to spend from E&D and for what purpose, superintendent of schools James Weiss said in a phone conversation with The Times this week.

The school committee voted 4-1 in favor of the budget’s certification. Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, a West Tisbury selectman, former finance committee member, and long-time school committee member, cast the dissenting vote.

“I think that E&D funds should only be used for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances, and that using E&D to lower assessments is a smoke and mirrors game, because you start off the next year that much in the hole,” Mr. Manter told The Times in a phone conversation yesterday. “If you want to reduce assessments, you reduce spending. By using E&D funds, you’re clouding over the actual increase in spending.”

Mr. Manter said he thought many voters misunderstand the school district’s budget, because they look at town assessments instead of focusing on school spending.

“By using E&D, you’re using money you overspent in the years before, so in essence you’re giving people back their own money.”

In addition to added expenses for kitchen renovations and a food service program, the FY13 budget includes payment on new debt for emergency repairs and exterior renovations at West Tisbury School in 2011 that kicks in next year, at an annual cost of $153,000.

The unexpected transfer of a special education student to residential care in an off-Island facility last December also factored into the district’s budget increase.

Since the student lives part-time in both Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury through a joint custody arrangement, the school districts for each of those towns will pay $97,500, half of the $195,000 cost for next year.

At a school committee meeting in December, superintendent Weiss said $22,000 of state Circuit Breaker funds would be applied to the UIRSD’s share for half of this school year. He suggested that an additional $30,000 be taken from E&D funds rather than from the district’s two school’s budgets to cover the expense in FY12.

At the conclusion of a budget public hearing on December 19, 2011, the school committee voted to approve the bottom line and to apply $100,000 from E&D funds.

However, the West Tisbury School Budget Task Force, created last summer to review the UIRSD FY13 budget, sent a letter to the school committee dated December 21 recommending that the school committee use more. Task force members included selectman Cynthia Mitchell, finance committee member Greg Orcutt, and town accountant Bruce Stone.

“Because of these extraordinary, unforeseen and temporary expenditures which total over $350,000, we would recommend applying a larger amount of E&D funds as an offset to the FY 2013 budget,” their letter said. “If $250,000 of E&D were to be applied, the percentage total increase in total assessments to the towns would decrease to about 5.3 percent from the current 7.1 percent.”

The school committee members discussed the task force’s letter at the January 23 meeting, which Mr. Stone attended. In addition to the previous $100,000 approved, they agreed to add another $90,000.

The UIRSD applied for E&D certification at $391,317, according to school business administrator Amy Tierney. With subtractions for the FY12 residential placement and the FY13 budget offset, there will be a balance of $171,313.