All-Island School Committee postpones budget decision
The All-Island School Committee (AISC) deferred a vote on the superintendent's budget last week, because several of its members preferred handing off budget-cutting decisions to voters at spring town meetings.
Superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) James Weiss came to the October 22 committee meeting prepared to make recommendations for cuts in the fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget that he had earlier proposed to the AISC. Instead, the AISC voted to take no action on $11,000 in reductions Mr. Weiss had identified as possible cuts to trim his budget, and they chose to postpone a vote to finally approve the school chief's plan until November 23.
At last week's meeting, Mr. Weiss presented a revised draft budget of $3.6 million, up 3.64 percent from $3.5 million in FY10. The revised budget included corrections in salary amounts and a $2,058 salary lane change not included in the first draft.
In addition to the budget for his office and staff, Mr. Weiss's budget includes shared services programs for schools Island-wide. The $127,562 budget increase he proposed includes funds for a school physician ($8,500), two additional special education assistants ($22,471 and $24,304), salary increases for non-union employees (a pool of $5,000), contractual step increases for union employees ($12,158), and health insurance ($84,122 for new personnel and a possible 12-percent increase), and the lane change.
The draft budget Mr. Weiss presented on October 8 included a contingency plan in case Island towns requested a zero percent increase. He outlined possible reductions totaling $105,599, which would bring his proposed budget increase down to .56 percent.
Among the possible reductions, the elimination of a half-time elementary strings teacher's position, an Island-wide accompanist, and funds to support students' attendance in programs at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and The Yard brought protests from several educators and parents.
Before presenting his budget recommendations at last week's meeting, Mr. Weiss provided a packet of copies of correspondence from town officials, educators, and supporters of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and music and arts programs.
The Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee (FinCom) set a target of a zero percent increase for the town's FY11 budget, including funding for schools. The Tisbury FinCom recommended that all town departments, including schools, aim for a 4-percent reduction in their total budgets.
Several other letters urged the AISC not to cut funds for the elementary strings program and participation in Felix Neck school programs.
In presenting his revised budget, Mr. Weiss said that rather than trying to achieve a zero percent increase, he would recommend reducing his budget by $61,213 for a 1.9-percent hike over FY10, the current year.
To achieve the reduction, Mr. Weiss pared down his previous list and recommended the elimination of the Island-wide athletic director ($571) and an Island-wide accompanist ($2,000), reduced hours for a financial assistant ($20,604) and English Language Learners coordinator ($26,822), and a reduction of $11,216 in funds to cover possible health insurance premium increases.
"That keeps most of the things in place, not all," Mr. Weiss said. "This is my best recommendation. Am I comfortable with it? Am I happy with it? No."
Susan Parker of Chilmark made a motion to retain funds for the Island-wide choir, accompanist and programs at The Yard and Felix Neck, for a total of $11,000.
"The budget belongs to the community of Martha's Vineyard," committee member Bob Tankard of Tisbury said. "It won't be the first time a budget goes to town floor. I'm ready to fight."
Les Baynes of Edgartown suggested that the committee should take a few weeks to think about everything and vote on the budget at the next meeting.
The committee voted on Ms. Parker's amended motion, which passed 11-1. Mr. Baynes voted no. He followed up with a motion to table the final vote on the superintendent's budget, which was unanimously approved.
Discussion during the meeting included an almost hour-long public comment session. About 15 people - including parents, teachers, musicians, and community members - spoke against cuts in the strings program and Felix Neck education programs that the superintendent had included in a list of possible budget reductions two weeks ago.
"I can't speak for all my colleagues, but you haven't convinced me," committee member Marshall Segall of West Tisbury said. "You've reinforced what I know. We don't want to cut a single string, we don't. You're with us, and to the very best of our ability, we're with you."
Mr. Baynes reminded everyone that although the Vineyard has become accustomed to a school budget that includes everything that's wanted, these are hard times. "The rubber has hit the road. The superintendent has to crop the budget," he said. "I don't want to cut anything, but I want to present a fiscally responsible budget. We need to support all the children."
In other discussion, Warren Gosson of Edgartown, a retired Oak Bluffs police officer, said $1,000 in the superintendent's budget for background checks on school personnel, down from $2,500 a few years ago, is not enough.
Mr. Gosson said school policy should require a national criminal records background check, not just a state Criminal Offenders Record Investigation (CORI), on every person who works in connection with the school system, including custodians and cab drivers.
The MVPS does two types of background checks, which is more than other Cape and Islands school districts do, Mr. Weiss said. A CORI is done on every school employee every three years, and a nation-wide background check on new employees.
While the state provides free CORI's for schools, Mr. Weiss said the school system must pay a service for the nationwide background checks. "If you hire 100 new employees, I'd have to find the money to do those background checks," he told the school committee.
In other business, the AISC voted within individual school committees to approve a third reading of a proposed cyber-bullying policy.
The AISC's next meeting is November 23, at 7 pm, in the MVRHS library conference room.