Superintendent’s budget increase driven by special education costs

Ralph Stewart

Additional funds for special education support staff, substitutes, and transportation account for a large part of an 8.84 percent increase requested by Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) superintendent of schools James Weiss in his budget for next year.

Mr. Weiss presented his $4.39 million fiscal year 2014 (FY14) budget — an increase of $357,258 from $4.042 million in FY13 — to the All-Island School Committee (AISC) at a meeting at the regional high school on October 18.

In a cover letter to AISC members he included with copies of the budget, Mr. Weiss said the FY14 increase is “…clearly much higher than I would like. As in previous years, I look forward to a robust discussion.”

He also pointed out to the committee that until he has the results of contract negotiations currently underway with the school system’s bargaining units, the salary amounts in the budget for those employees include only lane changes and step increases.

The superintendent traditionally leads the way in the annual school budget process that begins in the fall, since his budget includes not only his office but also shared services and programs, including special education, provided through his office to the Island’s five school districts.

The costs of those services and programs are divided among the school districts, which include separate elementary school districts in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, and two regional school districts. The towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury are members of the Up-Island Regional School District, which includes the Chilmark and West Tisbury Schools. The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District includes students from all Island towns.

MVRHS pays 20 percent of the cost of the shared services and programs it uses. The elementary school districts pay a percentage based on enrollment, which means that their cost shares may fluctuate from year to year.

Growing SPED needs

“The shared services budget is largely a special education support budget with the vast majority of funds going to staff that provide direct service to students,” Mr. Weiss said in his letter to the AISC.

Special education (SPED) services include occupational, physical, and vision therapies, as well as psychological evaluations.

As was the case for this school year, Mr. Weiss said additional staffing would be required in the Bridge and Project Headway programs for the 2013-2014 school year. His budget includes two additional full-time equivalent (FTE) Education Support Professionals (ESPs) in the Bridge Program, at a cost of $71,882, and one in the Project Headway program, at a cost of $36,234.

Based on a significant growth in the need for speech and language department services, Mr. Weiss also included the addition of a .5FTE speech and language therapist, at a cost of $31,054.

“In some cases this staffing has already been added for this year thanks to the support of local District funds; however, these positions should be funded through the Shared Services Budget for next year,” Mr. Weiss recommended.

The Bridge Program, located at Edgartown School, serves students with autism spectrum disorders and communication and social interaction disorders. The Project Headway program includes two preschool classes located at West Tisbury School that combine SPED students and regular education students designated as “peer models.” A third program, the Social Skills Program, supports the needs of elementary students with social, emotional, and behavioral disabilities in Kindergarten through grade 5.

Over the past few years, Mr. Weiss’s budget did not include funds for substitutes for the three programs. The FY14 budget includes $14,550 for that expense. There also is an increase of $50,000 in the budget for transportation services to cover usage by additional SPED elementary students.

One question mark that remains in the FY14 budget is whether it will be necessary to add another shared services program to handle a group of students with significant special needs due to enter kindergarten next fall, Mr. Weiss said. He and West Tisbury School assistant principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, Early Childhood Coordinator Robyn Gurney, and school principals are in the process of considering programming alternatives.

“Our present Shared Services classes (Bridge and Social Skills) are not appropriate for these young people, who have a wide range of developmental and medical needs,” Mr. Weiss said. “Whether we place these youngsters in their respective home schools with significant supports or establish another shared service program for them has not been determined at this point. Hopefully, we can complete this planning prior to the finalization of the Shared Services Budget in November.”

Non-SPED budget increases

Mr. Weiss’s proposed budget also includes increases for four items that are not included in SPED funding. While his staff continues to explore options for a new facility for the superintendent’s office, Mr. Weiss requested a small increase in maintenance funds needed for minimal repair work on the present building on Spring Street. He also included $6,940 to fund a new server, hardware, and software for the MVPS payroll program.

Due to declining grant funding, Mr. Weiss added about $1,500 for supplies for the MV Adult Learning Program, which provides evening English language instruction classes for adults on the Island. He also increased the salary increment line by about $25,000 to fund the first year of a two-year program of increases for central office administrators. Those include Laurie Halt, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Amy Tierney, school business administrator, and the director of student support services, a position left vacant by Dan Seklecki’s retirement in July. Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt currently serves as the interim director.

“Data indicates that they have fallen behind the Cape and Island averages, and we clearly saw this as we completed our search for a new Director of Student Support Services,” Mr. Weiss said.

Given the increases in his budget, Mr. Weiss did not include two other items he considers important, approximately $13,000 to fund a new position for an Island-wide facilities manager, and between $5,000 and $10,000 for additional student support work with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

“While I support these worthwhile items, I am hesitant to increase the proposal even further,” he said. “I will, however, seek alternative ways to bring these forward.”

The AISC plans to discuss and vote on the superintendent’s budget at a meeting at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Nov. 8, in the MVRHS library conference room.