Island educators plan for trimmed funding
As Island educators begin a new school year, the impact of the recession on school budgets is an overriding concern.
Spending decisions made months ago are now up against the realities of declining town revenues and possible shortfalls in anticipated state reimbursements, federal funds, and grant money.
Last week, school leaders spoke of their efforts to take a proactive approach in cutting costs now and making plans for the fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget process that will begin soon.
Superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) James Weiss said that contractual issues and a loss of revenue from state, Federal, and other sources are this year's two largest budget challenges.
Union contracts for teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria workers expire on June 20, 2010.
Mr. Weiss and the All-Island School Committee's (AISC) negotiations subcommittee will begin meeting this month. The teachers' contract will be negotiated first.
Since the superintendent's office oversees shared programs for the Island's schools, Mr. Weiss must prepare his budget ahead of the Island schools.
With that in mind, and as a first step before formal union negotiations begin, Mr. Weiss proposed to the AISC personnel subcommittee on August 31 that he would forego his own four-percent salary increase for FY10, which was negotiated in his contract that runs through FY11. He also requested a two-year extension on his contract.
Mr. Weiss also recommended no increase for administrative and non-union personnel in his office. He did request a small pool of money to use for increases that would be divided among the non-union support staff, given that union employees are likely to receive some kind of increase.
Mr. Weiss's other focus is on developing prudent school budgets. Although he did not propose any new programs for the school system this year, he said he is concerned about the challenge of continuing to provide a broad education for Island students as offered in past years, within tighter budget constraints.
"It's getting more difficult because the things that go first are what people might call the 'extras,'" Mr. Weiss said, naming foreign language at elementary schools, art and music as examples. "But that's all part of what youngsters need to be successful students."
At Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), a higher number of transfer students than anticipated has been one of the recession's unexpected results.
"In the last couple of years, we're seeing parents who would be normally sending their kids off-Island to school sending them here," Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Steve Nixon said. "It makes us feel good that parents realize their kids will get a top-notch quality education here."
At the same time, however, tough budget-cutting decisions that may impact personnel and programs are looming. The high school has not yet received concrete revenue figures from the state, Mr. Nixon said, and with talk of reductions, there may be revenue shortfalls.
"And if that, in fact, is the case, then we're going to have to make mid-course corrections here to account for any losses that we may have to suffer," Mr. Nixon said. "And that's before we even proceed into the end of September, moving towards the next budget season for fiscal year 2011."
It becomes a balancing act, trying to maintain ambitious educational goals within fiscal constraints, Mr. Nixon added.
Unfortunately, since the high school's budget includes many fixed costs that cannot be adjusted, cuts will likely affect personnel, Mr. Nixon said.
Mindful of the Island towns' financial difficulties, Mr. Nixon did not staff any new teaching positions this year and simply replaced people who left over the summer. He also cut a position in the physical education department, left vacant when health teacher Sandy Mincone assumed new duties as the high school's athletic director.
Among the Island's elementary schools, Oak Bluffs School already has faced painful budget cuts before opening its doors this week.
Mandated by the town to cut $199,000 from the Oak Bluffs School's FY10 budget, the school committee met last week with principal Laury Binney and agreed on cuts to reach that goal. (See "Oak Bluffs eyes layoff alternative," The Martha's Vineyard Times, Sept. 3.)
Based on recommendations from the School Advisory Council, the school committee modified and expanded on budget cuts to include the elimination of a non-teaching position, in addition to two vacant teaching assistant positions eliminated earlier this year.
Other cuts were made in a lengthy list of expenses associated with the cafeteria, maintenance, and telephones. Funds for teachers' supplies will be cut by 20 percent and teachers' professional development by 80 percent. Building maintenance, such as painting, will be deferred.
The school also will draw $185,000 this year from School Choice funds, up from $150,000, to offset the budget. Those funds come from reimbursements from other Island towns for their students who choose to attend the Oak Bluffs School.
"I think our challenge is going to be dealing with less," Mr. Binney said. "That's going to have to be a goal for us, figuring out how to work with less resources."
Field trips are one of the cuts Mr. Binney regrets for his students, since living on an Island limits their access to the educational benefits of museums and historical sites. "So we need to plan for that, how we can get help from the Parent-Teacher Organization and other places to help pay for field trips, so the burden doesn't rest with the parents," he added.
At Tisbury School, principal Richie Smith said his school is focusing funding on textbooks, programs, resources, and assessment this year. "We've got ever increasing demands and benchmarks and mandates with a decrease in revenues, so we're trying to keep our staff and programs intact," he said.
While Oak Bluffs School may be the first among the Island schools to deal with such difficult budget cuts, Mr. Smith said he thinks all of the schools will be looking at those same kinds of cuts next year.
"We've been trying to reduce, but I think this year we will be compelled to go deeper, and there is no wiggle room," Mr. Smith said. "When there is no wiggle room, you have to start looking at staffing numbers, like Oak Bluffs faced."
Without new revenue or with decreasing revenue, Mr. Smith said that Tisbury School is looking at utilizing resources already available and reorganizing the staff to best utilize their talents, training, and experience. "I'll go on record as saying anything is on the table," he said. "You have got to look at everything."
That includes elementary school sports, enrichment, the instructional staff, and programs, Mr. Smith added. "How do you do that in a sensitive way? That's where the creativity comes," he said. "And how do you do that in a way that doesn't impact the kids' learning? That's the tricky part."
Edgartown School Principal John Stevens said providing an excellent education at a reasonable cost is one of his central goals. "We have to be careful of our spending, and we have to be thrifty, and just make sure that we're spending wisely, because in these economic times, you have to watch every dollar," he said.