Towns hear what’s behind the school budget numbers

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

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools administrators have been making the rounds recently to discuss their budgets with selectmen and finance and advisory committees, in preparation for annual town meetings this spring. In a recent presentation to Chilmark town officials, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) principal Stephen Nixon provided a profile of the high school’s students, programs, and faculty to help put the school’s $18.5 million fiscal year 2015 (FY15) total operating budget in context.

Mr. Nixon first presented the information last November at a sparsely attended public hearing on the high school’s proposed FY15 budget. He also put the information from his presentation into two booklets that have been provided to town officials.

One describes the budget in detail, including what the costs are, how they are categorized, such as administrative, instructional or fixed costs, for example, and reasons for increases or decreases. A second booklet included “Miscellaneous Data” that describes how the high school compares to others, and what taxpayers get for their money, in terms of per pupil expenditures, teacher salaries and experience, programming, student performance, and graduation rates.

“I got a lot of feedback this year that they [town officials] really appreciate the second booklet,” Mr. Nixon told The Times in a phone conversation this week.

“I think it’s important for people to see that we do get supported very well by the community in our budget,” he added. “And it’s also important for them to see that based on that, this past year we had the highest Advanced Placement scores in the history of the school. We had the highest SAT scores in the history of the school. And our MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] advanced and proficient rates are higher than the state’s. It shows that what for we’re spending here, we are getting a quality education to the kids.”

As documented in the “miscellaneous data,” last year 88 percent of MVRHS students scored advanced or proficient in math, compared to 80 percent in the state; 96 percent in English compared to 91 percent in the state; and 86 percent in science compared to 71 percent in the state. MVRHS students surpassed the state and national SAT exam mean scores in critical reading, math, and writing.

Something for everyone

In addition to good test scores, Mr. Nixon said the high school’s diverse programs are another strong point. MVRHS must offer a comprehensive program that includes general, special, and vocational education, he pointed out.

“That attaches to the fact we don’t want any student to come here that doesn’t have the opportunity to pursue whatever their passion may be,” Mr. Nixon said. “And we try to make that available in any way we possibly can.”

Of the high school’s 682 students as of the October 2013 census, 137 are enrolled in special education, 167 in vocational programs, 222 in advanced placement courses, 40 in an alternative education program, and 25 in MCAS Education Proficiency Plans, according to the miscellaneous data booklet.

The high school added a new alternative education program and Therapeutic Support Program in 2012. The alternative education program gives students with different learning styles and abilities an opportunity to learn in a setting other than the standard, structured mainstream classroom, Mr. Nixon told The Times. The special education Therapeutic Support Program provides students with individualized therapeutic interventions to ensure academic success, instead of them being sent to facilities elsewhere.

“We try to address every need of all of our students while keeping in mind it’s important to keep the students here, on the Island, and home with their families, whether it’s vocational students or special education students,” Mr. Nixon added.

He said he thinks a lot of taxpayers may not understand the unique way the high school is structured and how it operates.

“On the one hand, you have an Island school, you have a high cost of living, you have a regional school, but you also have a school that has an in-house vocational program, and basically, for the most part, an in-house special education program that other schools on the mainland would bus their kids to other schools for,” Mr. Nixon said.

How MVRHS compares

Because MVRHS is a comprehensive high school, it makes it difficult to compare it to other high schools that are not. With that in mind, Mr. Nixon chose another island school (Nantucket High School), two vocational high schools (Cape Cod Tech and Minuteman High School), a town high school (Falmouth High School), and a regional high school (Nauset High School) for cost comparison purposes in the “Miscellaneous Data” report.

MVRHS ranked second highest in the group with a per pupil cost of $24,337, according to 2011 figures in Mr. Nixon’s report from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Minuteman High School topped the list at $25,373. Nantucket ranked third, at $20,854, followed by Cape Cod Tech, $20,640; Nauset, $17,993; and Falmouth, $14,216.

In comparing teachers’ salaries, Nantucket was highest at $84,927, followed by Minuteman ($84,562); MVRHS ($81,719); Nauset ($80,505); Cape Cod Tech ($72,495); and Falmouth ($72,191), based on 2011 DESE figures. The state average was $70,340.

The teaching staff of 119 at MVRHS included 56 teachers age 48 or younger, and 63 age 49 and older, according to 2012-13 DESE figures. More than half are on the top step of their salary level, and 81 percent of the teachers hold advanced degrees.

MVRHS ranked first in graduation rates at 94.1 percent (adjusted), compared to Minuteman (92.6 percent), Falmouth (92.3 percent), Nantucket (92 percent), Dennis-Yarmouth (86 percent), and Cape Cod Tech (87.9 percent). The state average was 83.4 percent.

Of 181 graduates in the MVRHS class of 2013, 77 percent went on to attend a four-year college or university and 9 percent to two-year colleges, technical schools or college prep programs.

Mr. Nixon said the high school’s efforts to adapt programming geared towards students’ interests, needs, and job possibilities has been key to their success. MVRHS is currently involved with Cape Cod Community College in implementing a program that integrates science, technology, engineering, arts and math (called the STEAM program), Mr. Nixon said, to better prepare students for college and the future job market.

“It’s those kinds of changes as we move forward that have to constantly keep the school evolving, so that’s why the financial support from the community is so important,” Mr. Nixon said. “Because you can very easily stick to an old model of education, and if you’re not careful, the world will pass you by.”

School administrators provided budget numbers to The Times last September. Island taxpayers spend generously on education, contributing approximately $43,637,102 this school year to support seven schools, including Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.