School superintendent presents $5.4 million draft budget

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School — File photo by Susan Safford

Rising numbers of special education students and the types of services they will require next year are the driving factor in a 21.67 percent increase requested by Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) superintendent of schools James Weiss in his fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget presented Wednesday night.

Mr. Weiss planned to present his $5,401,444 budget — an increase of $961,871 from $4.39 million in FY14 — to the All-Island School Committee (AISC) at a meeting last night at the regional high school.

“Clearly, this proposed increase is larger than any of us anticipated,” Mr. Weiss wrote to the school committee in a cover letter included with his draft budget. “It will require a rich discussion and some difficult decisions; however, many of these expenses will need to be in the Shared Services proposal or in those of the individual school districts.”

Last spring Mr. Weiss and the AISC discussed a long-range planning initiative for MVPS special education programs. One of them is the Bridge Program, located at Edgartown School, which serves students with autism spectrum disorders and communication and social interaction disorders.

The program was added to the superintendent’s shared services budget in the 2008-2009 school year. A second Bridge Program was funded in the superintendent’s FY12 budget to add a teacher and an assistant to work with the oldest students.

Based on the number of students expected in the Bridge Program next year, Mr. Weiss said it would be necessary to add a class to serve all of their needs, and to include funds for additional staff and transportation in his fiscal year 2015 budget. Many of the children will also require extended year services, as well.

Mr. Weiss warned that the cost of the additional Bridge Program class, worst case scenario, could be as much as $300,000 to $500,000. As detailed in his draft budget, he was close to the mark, because an additional teacher, program coordinator, and educational support professionals (ESPs), supplies, and increased summer school and transportation costs add up to $451,472.

“Unfortunately, I did not anticipate that the level of reductions to our federal special education grants would impact our ability to supply direct services to the extent it has,” Mr. Weiss said in the cover letter.

A 10 percent cut in grant funds received in FY14 adds up to a shortfall of $189,923 the superintendent’s budget has to cover. That includes a decrease of $95,48 for a full-time equivalent (FTE) speech and language pathologist, $86,935 for an FTE occupational therapist, and $75,000 for special education electronic communications Island-wide.

How it’s divided up

The superintendent traditionally leads the way in the MVPS budget process. Mr. Weiss discussed his budget in general terms at the AISC’s meeting last month, with plans to follow up with a draft budget with dollar amounts at last night’s meeting.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the superintendent’s budget includes expenses not only for his office but also shared services, which primarily support special education, as well as other programs provided to students Island-wide in five school districts. Occupational, physical, and vision therapies, as well as psychological evaluations, are among the special education services.

The costs are divided among MVPS elementary school districts in the towns of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, and two regional school districts. Those include the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) for elementary students in Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District (MVRHS) for high school students from all towns.

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

Budget highlights

In his initial budget discussions with the AISC last month, Mr. Weiss said there would be costs for four major items to consider. Those included additions to the special education program, funds for repairs at his office building at 4 Pine Street in Vineyard Haven, administrator and non-union salary funds, and funds to conduct a search for his replacement before his contract ends on June 30, 2015.

In fine-tuning his budget since then, Mr. Weiss said he removed several important items to lower the overall cost. He did not include $50,000 he told the AISC last month is needed to fund repairs and maintenance at his building, including $40,000 for HVAC and $10,000 for electrical service. Although plans are in the works for possibly building a new superintendent’s office building, Mr. Weiss said in the meantime, the AISC would have to make some important decisions regarding the future of the Pine Street building. He is concerned that the heating system may not make it through this winter.

In place of $113,000 in his budget for a new facilities manager’s salary, Mr. Weiss included $25,000 to cover the cost of a facilities consultant to develop a capital plan for each elementary school. He also did not include additional funds for increased English Language Learners (ELL) program coordination.

“With our growing ELL population, additional time for our ELL director should have been included, but was not, and must be in the FY16 budget proposal,” Mr. Weiss noted in his letter.

He also did not include funds in his budget for professional development and consulting that are no longer included in the special education grants.

To help offset some of the special education program increases, Mr. Weiss applied for a grant from the Tower Foundation that would partially fund the additional early childhood position, at about 80 percent the first year, 40 percent the second year, and 25 percent the third year. In addition to coordinating programs, the new community outreach educator will seek to identify and work with preschoolers in the Island community in need of early intervention as soon as possible.

Mr. Weiss’s budget includes salary increases for administrators, teachers and specialists, ESPs, and secretaries on his staff. In addition to union employees’ salary increases in accordance with contractual obligations, he budgeted $43,200 for increases for administrators and non-union employees.

Last month, the AISC gave Mr. Weiss approval to allocate raises in his budget from a pool of money up to 3 percent of the combined salaries of non-union administrators, including his own, and non-union employees. Mr. Weiss will determine who receives a raise and how much.

With his contract due to end on June 15, 2014, Mr. Weiss also included $30,000 in his budget for a superintendent’s search. In a conversation with The Times in his office on Tuesday, he recalled that the AISC spent $25,000 on a superintendent’s search 10 years ago that resulted in his hiring.

“In the nine years I’ve been here all but two of us [superintendents] on the Cape and Islands have come and gone,” Mr. Weiss said. “So finding the right people is not going to be easy.”

A growing need

At the conclusion of his power-point budget presentation to the AISC, Mr. Weiss noted that without the new items, the difference from last year’s budget would be $222,276, an increase of about 5.1 percent.

“What people don’t understand about this office is that more and more of our role on the Island is to provide special services,” he told The Times. “And the biggest portion of this increase is the almost $500,000 for special services.”

Of the 2013 shared services budget, Mr. Weiss said 63 percent is allocated to special education spending and 37 percent to general spending for the superintendent’s office, including curriculum and instruction, and financial costs. In 2014 special education spending increases to 67 percent of the shared service budget and general spending decreases to 33 percent.

“I’m bringing forward what we need to have to run this office, and more importantly, the special education programs that we have,” Mr. Weiss said. “If the school district committees don’t want to do that, the question I have for them is, okay, since the vast majority of this money is special education, what do we do? Tell me.”

He said he is fearful of a backlash from people who will say the Island’s public school system spends too much on special education.

“We are spending a lot of money,” Mr. Weiss said. “We have good programs, and we have a lot of kids with difficulties. And we’re not alone in that.”

The news about his budget increase should come as no surprise, he added. Since last May, Mr. Weiss has met with selectmen, town administrators, and/or finance advisory committee members in all of the Island towns, to give them a heads-up about the anticipated special education budget increases, before they begin work on FY15 municipal budgets.

As a next step, the AISC will discuss and vote on the superintendent’s budget at a meeting at 7 pm on Tuesday, November 19, at Edgartown School.