Martha’s Vineyard high school committee gets back to business

Students milled about on the first day back to school. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District school committee dipped its toes into the new school year’s waters with a 45-minute meeting Monday night that included reports on opening day, new and old budget business, and program changes.

“We had a great opening; all the kids came back, and most of them were very happy to be back,” Principal Stephen Nixon said with a smile. “We had a lot of changes over the summer. We are starting two major programs this year that we’ve talked to you about, the alternative program and therapeutic support program.”

Mr. Nixon said in follow-up to assistant principal Matt Malowski’s recommendation last year, freshmen orientation day also underwent some big changes. Over the summer, assistant principal Andrew Berry, who oversees the freshman class, met with ninth-grade teachers and guidance counselor John Fiorito to create more lively and fun-filled activities.

Freshmen attended school for a half-day of orientation on September 5. In addition to a free breakfast, they took part in a 45-minute scavenger hunt designed to help them learn their way around the school, and finished up in the gym with competitive games between the homeroom classrooms.

Adding to Mr. Nixon’s remarks, superintendent of schools James Weiss said of opening day in schools Island-wide, “It was for the most part uneventful and went extremely well.”

“Where we had some difficulties had to do with staffing,” he added.”Toward the end of August, there was a just overwhelming shift of people from around the Island, some late resignations, some people who had taken jobs decided not to take jobs, so there were really quite a few things here to take care of. Our office is still processing papers for new employees, because we just couldn’t get them in fast enough.”

Mr. Weiss said there were many new teachers and assistants at the high school, and the same was true in the elementary schools.

Early childhood program closure

In follow-up to plans to discontinue an early childhood vocational education program, Mr. Weiss gave the committee members a copy of a letter approving the closure plan he submitted from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

School officials made the decision last year to phase out the program because of declining interest and enrollment, which was down to six students. Under the closure plan, no new students were accepted into the program this year and it will officially close after the remaining students cycle through, at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

The decision sparked protest from community members who participated in activities at the MV Family Center, a Martha’s Vineyard Community Services program that has operated in space at the high school since 1996. In exchange, it provided early childhood vocational students the opportunity to experience working with young children.

Mr. Weiss said the Family Center would continue to have use of the space through January 1, 2014. After that, he said the space may be used for a new certified nursing assistant program the high school is attempting to start or for the new alternative education and therapeutic support programs.

Budget deficits on the radar

In a financial report, MVRHS accounts manager Mark Friedman said the high school came in within its $17.1 million budget for fiscal year 2012 (FY12), which ended July 1, with about $43,000 left. With the start of the new fiscal year and school year, Mr. Friedman highlighted two significant deficits that have already cropped up and that he will be monitoring.

One is in the salary line for Title I teachers. The Federal government recently notified the school district of a $26,000 decrease in Title I grant funds this year, Mr. Friedman said. Title 1 grants are based on the percentage of a school’s population from low-income families. The funds may be used in a variety of ways to improve academic achievement. At the high school Title 1 teacher Dianne Norton runs a writing lab.

School committee member Lisa Regan of Oak Bluffs asked whether the reduction in Title I funds is due to a decrease in the high school population.

“What we found this year are some real shifts in our Title I expenses, having mostly to do with the 2010 census that shifted some costs around,” superintendent of schools James Weiss said.

For example, he said, Edgartown School’s Title I allocation went up by about $15,000, and Oak Bluffs School’s almost doubled, from about $79,000 to about $150,000. Other Island schools’ funds decreased slightly.

“So this is probably a bigger swing than is typical, because of the census change,” Mr. Weiss said. “But from year to year, it does swing a little bit, and I would think next year we won’t see as big a change.”

Another significant deficit Mr. Friedman expects is in residential care tuitions for students who require special education services at facilities off Island. Last year’s deficit was $308,000. Mr. Friedman said he thinks this year’s will be comparable. That figure, however, is net of $218,000 in state Special Education Circuit Breaker funds the high school district expects to receive to help defray the extra expenses. The funds lag a year behind.

On the revenue side, the high school received a donation of $625 from James Athearn, from proceeds from the sales of his paintings at Morning Glory Farm. Target donated $196 to the high school from the 2012 Take Charge of Education program, through which up to 1 percent of Target credit card purchases made by parents, teachers, and other school supporters is donated to the school they designate.

Other business

In other business, the school committee voted to approve salary increases for management and non-union staff for the 2012-2013 school year, retroactive to July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The All-Island School Committee personnel subcommittee approved a pool for the increases in June and instructed Mr. Weiss to decide how to divide it up based on the staff members’ evaluations.

Mr. Weiss said he kept the increases between two and three percent, with most of the 15 employees receiving a 2.5 or 2.75 percent increase. Based on his recommendations, the school committee approved administrator salary increases for Mr. Nixon, from $123,552 to $126,023, Mr. Berry, from $101,500 to $104,545, and Mr. Malowski, from $91,000 to $93,275.77.

The school committee also set up the high school’s FY14 budget subcommittee and meeting schedule. Members will include Ms. Regan, Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah, Colleen McAndrews of Tisbury, and Susan Mercier of Edgartown. The subcommittee’s first meeting is at 6 pm, October 1, in the library conference room, before the school committee’s regular meeting at 7 pm.