Soundings : Mr. Nixon's opus
What a difference a school year makes.
Last winter, when principal Peg Regan proposed cuts to the drama and music staff at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, an association of parents quickly organized in protest and opposition. This fall, when principal Steven Nixon proposed staffing cuts in math and English, there was nary a public peep.
The only real political question, looking ahead, is whether the high school will be pressed to cut more.
What's different this time around? First of all, the economic situation, both nationally and locally, is much darker. Second, this round of cuts didn't target programs that can rally the kind of constituency the music and drama departments have. Perhaps the third factor is the way Mr. Nixon walked people through his budget plan this year.
In a cool and even wonkish hour-long presentation that included projected charts and graphs, Mr. Nixon unpacked the high school budget, all 277 lines of it, at a level of detail that went well beyond bottom-line totals. "What I tried to do," he said in a conversation this week, "is take that information and break it down so it's a little bit more understandable."
It's an unenviable juncture at which to take the helm of Martha's Vineyard's largest educational institution. This is not the moment to be announcing bold initiatives, but for pinching pennies in a way that does the least possible harm to the young people whom the high school serves.
We're fortunate, as a community, to have a new principal who is not new to the Martha's Vineyard high school, but already has six years of hands-on experience with the budget process. And it helps that Mr. Nixon, while embracing his role as an advocate for education, also has a coolness of manner and conveys an appreciation for the concerns of the town finance committees who have been pressing for deep cuts in his budget.
You could say the budget approved by the high school committee on Dec. 1 represents an increase of 1.7 percent, if you're counting the total operating budget, or 1.9 percent if you're talking about the increased assessment to Martha's Vineyard's towns. It's a telling measure of Mr. Nixon's approach that he prefers to use the higher number. He believes his budget is defensible down to the last detail, and doesn't want to be accused of using smoke and mirrors to understate the costs.
Mr. Nixon's approach in this budget process, he said, was to work at the periphery so the high school's core programs are protected. In his staffing cuts, he was particularly mindful of what he calls "sole-source providers," the teachers whose classes the high school calls singletons because they are offered in only a single section. If you cut back, say, from eight sections of freshman English to seven, you've only made the class sizes larger. But when your cuts target those singleton classes in departments like computers and business, art and music, the curriculum takes a direct hit.
"It's the difference between cutting a teacher," Mr. Nixon said, "and cutting a teacher and a program. I don't want that two-for-one deal."
Mr. Nixon has heard the demand for a level-funded high school budget from the finance committees of West Tisbury, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs. He said he's tried to be responsive, but added, "You can't just look at zero without looking at the ramifications of zero. I will have the zero discussion with you, if you're willing to have the ramifications discussion with me. Because there's always a cost.
"I don't like using scare tactics. If you say, cut the budget, increase the class sizes, cut back on teachers, get rid of electives, just concentrate on core curriculum - can that be done? Sure, it can be done. But when our SAT scores go down, or our MCAS scores and our graduation rates go down, or our kids don't get accepted to as many good colleges as in the past - you don't have the right to complain about that."
With the backdrop of a national recession, declining student enrollments and six member towns in financial pain, Mr. Nixon ruefully admitted, "We do joke about the fact that I picked a bad year to become principal." Yet he considers himself the right person for this moment: "I've been on both sides of the fence, as an administrator and a teacher, and I know that I have a grasp of what goes on here. If someone from the outside had to come in here and grasp this whole picture, in this financial period, I think that could have been disastrous."
He may be a freshman, but Mr. Nixon seems entirely comfortable in the role of principal. There was no note of bragging or bluster when he told me quietly that if he were a teacher at this difficult moment for the high school, "I would want me in charge."