School chief sees $3.6 million FY11 budget, with options for cuts
Contractual raises, healthcare premium increases, and special education staff additions account for the bulk of a 3.59-percent increase requested by superintendent of schools James Weiss in a draft budget for his office and shared programs for schools Island-wide.
Mr. Weiss made the initial presentation of his proposed fiscal year 2011 (FY11) $3.62 million budget, up from $3.5 million in FY10, to the All-Island School Committee at a meeting at the regional high school on October 8.
In a memo to the school committee that accompanied the budget, Mr. Weiss said that although none of the Island selectmen and finance committees (FinComs) have formally requested a zero percent budget increase yet, he believes that is the general sentiment on the Island.
"In a normal year, I would bring a budget with a 3.59 percent increase and be somewhat comfortable," Mr. Weiss said at last week's meeting. "If this group, responding to FinComs and towns, feels we need to get closer to zero, it will require $120,000 to be cut."
In preparation for that, Mr. Weiss proposed a contingency plan outlining possible budget reductions totaling $105,599.
Among the possible cuts, the elimination of a half-time elementary strings teacher's position, an Island-wide accompanist, and associated music expenses brought protest from staff and several parents of students involved in the program.
AISC chairman Dan Cabot opened the meeting to public comment before Mr. Weiss made his formal budget presentation. Mr. Cabot said Mr. Weiss had asked the school committee to notify people whose budgets might be reduced in advance of the meeting to give them an opportunity to attend and comment.
Providing an overview of her program, full-time elementary strings teacher Nancy Jephcote said she and half-time strings teacher Chelsea Pennebaker work with 203 students in five schools in grades one to eight. Carol Loud is their accompanist.
In addition to teaching continuous lessons during the school day, Ms. Jephcote said she and Ms. Pennebaker teach orchestra before school starts, four days a week. Cutting staff will mean eliminating children from the program, she said.
Several parents and community members spoke in defense of the strings program, including Tisbury selectman chairman Tristan Israel. "Food for the soul is more important than filling a pothole," he said, adding, "Music and learning to read music are as important to me as an MCAS score. I hope you will consider not gutting this program."
Mark Hahn, a professional scientist whose fifth-grader participates in the strings program at Tisbury School, said that music training is as important as core academics and that it fosters creativity.
How it adds up
In presenting the proposed FY11 superintendent's office and shared programs budget to the school committee, Mr. Weiss said he and his staff cut expenses as much as possible and kept the increase to a minimum.
The $125,503 increase Mr. Weiss proposed includes salaries and benefits for two additional special education assistants, $46,510 for a Bridge Program assistant and $54,816 for a Project Headway assistant.
The increase also includes $8,500 for a school physician, a pool of $5,000 for salary increases for non-union employees, $12,158 for contractual step increases for union employees, and funds for health insurance increases, estimated at 12 percent. The superintendent's administrative staff will receive no salary increases.
Mr. Weiss requested and received formal approval from the AISC on September 10 to appoint Dr. Michael L. Goldfein as a school physician, under a provision in the Massachusetts General Laws.
Although Dr. Goldfein, the chief of primary care and a pediatrician at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, has unofficially served in that role for many years, Mr. Weiss said, "I may have doctor in front of my name, but I'm no physician. With H1N1 [flu], we need someone in this position."
Mr. Weiss said he negotiated a salary of $8,500 with Dr. Goldfein for his services, which is in keeping with the salary range of $6,000 to $10,500 paid to school physicians on the Cape.
Regarding the two additional special education assistants, Mr. Weiss said another Project Headway assistant hired this year based on the number of students in the program is included in the FY10 adjusted budget. He wants to include the position in next year's budget.
Special Education director Dan Seklecki explained that the Bridge Program serves children with significant autism spectrum disorders.
Mr. Seklecki said the program includes kindergarten and grade one students this year, and will grow next year to include grade two students, for a total of 11. Given that the Bridge Program will grow slightly next year, an additional assistant will be needed in that program as well, Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Weiss said his budget was not just a matter of numbers, but rather a program built with consideration for the goals the AISC set as a priority for him last June. He added that he and his staff made reductions of $28,083 in the budget to start. Going through the budget line by line, they cut $18,583 in expenses.
"If a computer breaks in our office, I don't have any money to fix it," Mr. Weiss said.
Additionally, he and his staff eliminated $2,500 for the elementary schools' Island-wide chorus expenses, reduced support for sending students to programs at Felix Neck and The Yard by $6,500, and cut asbestos remediation by $500.
A contingency plan
Should the AISC decide that further budget cuts should be made, Mr. Weiss's list of "stage 1 reductions," totaling $105,599, include the remaining $7,000 to support students' attendance in programs at The Yard and Felix Neck, and $571 for an Island-wide athletic director for elementary schools.
In addition, reducing the English Language Learners Coordinator to half-time and a financial assistant's position by 601 hours would result in savings of $26,882 and $20,604, respectively.
The stage 1 reductions would bring the proposed FY11 budget down to $3.52 million, a .56-percent increase over last year. Mr. Weiss said he is prepared to make his recommendations regarding the budget and possible reductions at the AISC's next meeting on October 22 at 7 pm at MVRHS, in discussion prior to a vote.
"You need to take a look at it between now and then," Mr. Weiss said. "I want you to join with me in the agony it takes to make these decisions, because it's not easy to make them."
In other business, the AISC voted to keep the current formula used to determine assessments to the local school districts. The MVRHS school district pays a 20-percent share and Island elementary schools pay varying percentages based on enrollment numbers. The high school does not pay a portion of programs and services that relate only to the elementary schools, however.
AISC members agreed that given the difficult economy, it would not be a good year to make changes that could result in a substantial cost shift to the high school. Instead, they voted to keep the current method and review assessment options further over the next year.
In a report on the MVPS 2009 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test results, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Laurie Halt said that performance ratings were very high. She said on October 2, the state department of elementary and secondary education (DESE) released a new student growth model that offers educators a look at individual students' progress compared to others in their same grade level.
In the next few weeks, Ms. Halt said teachers in Island schools will meet by grade level to prepare MCAS reports on all 66 tests administered, which they will share with the next grade level teachers and also teachers Island-wide by grade. Those reports will be available November 16 on the MVPS website, mvyps.org.