ACE MV reaches out to taxpayers for money to supplement budget

Susan Safford

The future of the Adult Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV) is at a crossroads, according to executive director Lynn Ditchfield. The growth of the program has not been matched by sufficient growth in the operating budget needed to pay full-time staff for full-time work.

To meet ACE MV’s financial needs, Ms. Ditchfield and Sam Hart, who volunteers as ACE’s director of development, have begun visiting boards of selectmen in the six Island towns to appeal for financial support. They are asking town leaders to place funding articles on annual town meeting warrants this spring that would generate a total of $130,000.

The program has nearly doubled in size since it was started in 2008, and the nonprofit organization’s fees and tuition do not generate enough income to fully fund administration and overhead at the current level, Ms. Ditchfield told The Times last week in a phone conversation.

“People might ask, how come you’ve been getting on so far?” Ms. Ditchfield said. “We’re not. We need a staff. Thankfully, we’ve had a lot of volunteers.”

Raising tuition in order to cover costs is not a straight equation, according to Ms. Ditchfield. The unpredictability of class enrollments and a desire to keep classes affordable to the larger population limit tuition increases, she said.

How the budget adds up

A copy of the organization’s fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget that Ms. Ditchfield provided to The Times shows $169,448 in total expenses.

Expenses included $37,239 for teachers. Professional fees, which included printing and sharing programs, accounted for $17,259.

Salaries and wages came to $80,492. Staff wage line items include actual pay and a line item for “in kind,” or uncompensated work.

For example, under expenses, the salary of Ms. Ditchfield, the only full-time employee, is listed as $27,000. A budget line item lists $43,000 as in-kind pay.

Assistant director Sarah Monast, who is paid to work two days a week, earned $10,492.

Total earned income for FY 2013 is listed as $102,509. Contributions and fundraising bumped that figure to $123,773.

Program fees, including certificate, credit, enrichment, and GED and essential courses, totaled $100,009. An additional $21,263 was received in contributions from corporations and individuals and a fundraising event.

The budget statement lists total loss at $45,675 without Ms. Ditchfield’s in-kind contribution, or $2,675 with it. Going forward, she would like to see staff members paid for their time.

Because of the funding uncertainty, Ms. Ditchfield says ACE MV’s FY2014 budget is undergoing revision and is not available yet.

The group is seeking a total of $130,587 to help sustain ACE’s operations in FY 2015, divided up among the six towns, according to letters Ms. Ditchfield sent on behalf of the ACE MV board of directors to Island selectmen.

A draft budget proposed for FY 2015, which includes the $130,587 to be requested from Island towns, shows total projected income and expenses of $235,737.

Ms. Ditchfield said she is asking the towns to contribute based on the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s 50/50 formula, which is based on real estate valuation: Aquinnah, $3,748; Chilmark $13,881; Edgartown $40,286; Oak Bluffs $27,815; Tisbury $25,295; and West Tisbury $19,562.

Those funds would cover salaries, wages and benefits for the executive director, an assistant executive director, and a part-time executive assistant, Ms. Ditchfield told The Times.

Sweat equity

Ms. Ditchfield said the program is in financial distress because it has been operating on “sweat equity.” As ACE’s only full-time employee, she said she donates about three-quarters of her time on the job.

“It takes more than one full-time staff person,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “That’s where our business plan did not work. The idea in the beginning was that the revenue from courses could also meet the expenses for staffing needs, and it became very clear early on that was not the case unless we had a summer component, which we don’t at this time.”

Although ACE MV usually offers 30 to 50 classes a session, the program has been cut back to 36 classes this fall, taught by about 40 instructors.

“For the winter session, because we don’t have proper funding for staff, we are going to limit our courses to enrichment and credit courses, while we continue this campaign for public funds,” Ms. Ditchfield said.

Funding shortfalls

“I think up until now, when we’ve made this our mission, people assumed that we are paid for by the state or by the school system,” she said. “We do get a lot of support from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools, in that we use the schools for our classes and don’t pay for it.”

Most classes are held at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).

In addition to GED, certification and enrichment classes, ACE MV has offered college credit courses in collaboration with Cape Cod Community College (CCCC) and Fitchburg State University.

The CCCC courses operate at a loss, Ms. Ditchfield said. Asked why ACE MV has not increased the fees, Ms. Ditchfield said the board opted in the past to make the cost lower so more people could afford to take the courses.

Cutting back

“We would do anything to keep a class going, even when faced with small enrollment,” she said. “Very often, we don’t know until the last minute if there’s going to be the right amount of students, and the maximum and minimum depend on the teacher.”

If a class isn’t generating income, why not drop it, The Times asked.

“You would think after six years, we could predict which classes would be successful, but what happened is it varies from one session to the next,” Ms. Ditchfield said.

“For the most part we know certain courses people will always like or need,” she added. “But we’ve also had ones that we thought would be popular, and they weren’t until the third or fourth time we offered them. And sometimes we don’t want to offer the same class twice in a year. We’re learning along the way.”

Teachers are paid $20 an hour for classes with less than 7 students, $35 an hour for 7 to 15 students, and $50 a hour for for more than 15. Some donate their time, and there are also volunteers that help.

Island businesses also sponsor courses and make donations. EduComp, for example, sponsors an iPad course, and Featherstone Center for the Arts and Martha’s Vineyard Community Television have shared expenses for some classes.

The Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank offers a scholarship program, which has helped many people seeking general education development (GED) courses to get a high school equivalency diploma, Ms. Ditchfield said.

ACE MV offers the only GED courses for the public available on the Island. But because ACE does not operate a year-round program, the state does not pay for the courses, as it does in other communities.

Ms. Ditchfield said many people confuse ACE MV’s program with the Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program (MVALP), which teaches English to adult immigrants. MVALP is run through the school superintendent’s office and supported with a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Education and by contributions from Island businesses.

ACE MV’s past and future

Former assistant superintendent Marge Harris initiated a revitalization of adult education programs through the superintendent’s office in 2006. Ms. Ditchfield taught a class the first winter, and when Ms. Harris retired in 2007, she approached superintendent James Weiss about starting up a new, expanded program.

“He said there’s no money for your program, but go for it,” she recalled.

Becoming a nonprofit brought ACE MV a lot of additional expenses, Ms. Ditchfield said, and it also complicates raising funds.

“The issue is that the towns cannot legally give a 501(c)(3) funds, and that’s what we’re looking into right now,” Ms. Ditchfield said.

ACE MV is working towards modifying its nonprofit status, she explained, so that its board task force would become the organization’s fundraising arm, similar to town library support groups and public school sports groups.

Ms. Ditchfield said she hopes ACE MV will be able to get the change made in time to get an article on spring town meeting warrants. “I have confidence the towns are going to be excited, because this is really like an investment for the whole Island,” she added.