Budget uncertainties torment school leaders
School committee members and administrators continue to grapple with budget issues, always difficult, and they now face added pressure from the uncertainties of a faltering economy and the consequent squeeze on Island town revenues.
The All-Island School Committee (AISC) approved the superintendent's office/shared services budget on October 29, deferring a decision on town assessments until last week. One issue concerning the superintendent's office/shared services budget has to do with how Island school districts will address costs associated with the school choice program, which allows parents to send their children to schools in communities other than one in which they live. The sending school district pays tuition to the receiving district.
AISC committee member Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter took issue with two aspects of how the assessments are determined. Under the current method, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district pays a 20-percent share, while Martha's Vineyard elementary schools pay varying percentages, based on their enrollment numbers. Mr. Manter argued that the 20-percent figure is unreasonable because, based on enrollment figures, the high school represents about 34.5 percent of Martha's Vineyard's school population and should pay more.
Mr. Manter also observed that although the School Choice program is not supposed to cost towns extra money, apportioned charges are assessed to the towns where students go to school, instead of where they live. As shown in a nearby chart, Edgartown School, for example, will send 31 school choice students to other Island schools and receive 11. The net result is that other towns are picking up the cost of 20 Edgartown students' share of the superintendent's budget, Mr. Manter calculated. Although the AISC defeated a motion he made to assess towns where students live, rather than where they go to school, the AISC deferred a decision on the assessments for further discussion at a meeting last Thursday night at West Tisbury School.
Following up, superintendent of schools James Weiss said he and his staff, as well as an attorney, had done research and were unable to find the basis for the 20-percent figure used for the high school's portion.
Mr. Weiss provided charts that showed the difference when calculating assessments to the school districts for their portions of the superintendent's/shared services budget, based on the current method as compared with using the sending enrollment as a basis. The latter are included with this article. Increasing the high school's portion of the superintendent's office and shared services budget to 34.5 percent, based on enrollment, equates to a $250,000 difference, Mr. Weiss pointed out. As a result, Tisbury and Edgartown end up paying more and Oak Bluffs and the Up-Island towns less.
Mr. Weiss recommended using the current method again this year. "If we cost shift, the high school would have to come up with an extra $250,000, which will be difficult to do at this stage in the budget process," he said. He also recommended that if the assessment method is changed, the increase in the high school's portion should be phased in over a three-year period. The AISC voted unanimously to accept the assessments as originally proposed.
"What I want to do is, I want to come back, perhaps in April when we're not involved in budget discussions, and use this budget that we just developed for the next year as a kind of demonstration project," Mr. Weiss said this week. "We can talk about the various options, which include the way we've always done it, with the high school paying its fair share, with the high school paying the same amount but with school choice figured in, and then the high school paying its fair share based upon what's called foundation enrollment. There are a number of ways we could look at it and realistically, I think we need to give that some consideration."
The AISC also discussed another proposal from Mr. Manter regarding funding for a consultant's services to consider options for a new location for the superintendent's offices. Mr. Manter has proposed placing articles on town warrants next spring asking Island towns to each contribute $1,000 toward consultation costs.
Although there are several possibilities for using the building for something else, the facility will require maintenance and refurbishment, particularly for handicapped accessibility.
School committee member Susan Parker was leery of asking the towns for money toward the superintendent's building, when other big projects are looming, such as a new wastewater system at the high school.
"This is an issue that keeps going to the backburner," countered committee member Dave Rossi. "Let's get it out there - we've been blowing it off. This thing is a wreck. It's a liability." He suggested that since the high school owns the building, money for a facilities consultation study could be tapped from the high school's excess and deficiency (E&D) funds.
Les Baynes, who serves on the AISC and also the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School school committee, agreed that might be a good start, especially since E&D money could be used right away, instead of having to wait for funds to come from town meeting appropriations.
Time to talk with FinComs
With the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School draft fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget nearing completion for a public hearing on November 24, the Martha's Vineyard Finance Committee (MVFC) met with Mr. Weiss and Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Steve Nixon at a meeting last Thursday night to convey their concerns about finding money in shrinking town budgets for increasing educational costs.
Several members of the MVFC, which includes representatives of all of Martha's Vineyard's towns' finance committees, questioned salary increases and cost of living increases for employees. "I haven't gotten a seven-percent raise in the private sector for a long time," said West Tisbury FinCom member Brian Athearn. "It seems crazy to talk about these numbers."
Mr. Weiss said contracts for teachers, assistants, and secretaries were negotiated two years ago, and that he would be willing to go to the union and ask for a reduction, when municipal officials agreed to do the same.
Several MVFC members said they are at a disadvantage because the superintendent's/shared services and high school budgets are determined before the town budgets are. Mr. Weiss explained that regional school districts have a deadline of December 31, for determining their assessments and notifying the towns.
"I believe I sent a letter to every FinCom chairman before we started our process - it would make sense for everybody to come to those meetings and get together at the beginning of that process," Mr. Weiss said. Although Island town officials and finance committees were encouraged to comment on the budget, Mr. Weiss said he received only one letter on behalf of Edgartown, from town administrator Pam Dolby, requesting level funding in FY10. Oak Bluffs sent a letter requesting level funding after the budget had been approved.
Mr. Nixon outlined some of the difficulties faced in operating a comprehensive high school on an Island. Unlike schools on the mainland, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School bears the burden of providing all services to all students. He said he is keeping an eye on class size and staffing needs. Based on elementary school numbers, Mr. Nixon said the high school expects a 10 percent decrease in enrollment over the next three years, and by juggling retirements with new hires, he expects to adjust staffing accordingly.
"What I'm concerned about is the towns are in a decline," said Oak Bluffs FinCom member Thad Harshbarger. "As much as I'd like to support everything you feel you need, I don't know how to come up with the bucks for it."