Assessments rise for RHS FY2011 budget
The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District school committee met Monday night for a final review of the proposed fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for this Monday, Nov. 30, at 7 pm in the Performing Arts Center.
The proposed FY11 budget's operating expenses total $16.45 million, about $7,838 or half a percent less than the FY10 total of $16.46 million.
The slight decrease in FY11 operating expenses, however, was more than offset by a hefty decrease in revenues and a 3.72-percent increase in fixed costs, which include payroll obligations, benefits, and insurance.
Despite diligent efforts by high school administrators to hold the line, Island towns will pay total assessed expenses of $12.96 million in FY11, an increase of about $488,325 or 3.91 percent, over $12.47 million in FY10.
According to the latest announcements from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the high school's FY11 revenues and reimbursements from the state will be reduced by another 12.5 percent, for a total of $3.48 million, compared to $3.98 million in FY10.
The most recent state revenue bad news came as a double blow after earlier cuts in the fall. From September on, Mr. Nixon and his staff had to cut an additional $315,000 from the high school's FY10 budget based on state revenue reductions, for a total of over $700,000 for this budget year alone.
Asking towns to pay more
At Monday's meeting, budget subcommittee chairman Leslie Baynes of Edgartown commended Mr. Nixon and his staff for coming up with a "very tight budget." He quoted Mr. Nixon, who said in a previous meeting it is the first time since he arrived at the high school in 1997 that operating expenses have gone down.
Island finance and advisory committees (FinCom) had weighed in with recommendations that ranged from a zero-percent increase to minus four percent, Mr. Baynes also pointed out. "We did the best we could," he said.
Committee member Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter of West Tisbury was not convinced. "There is a half-million dollars in additional assessments to the towns," he said. "You put a nice spin on it, but the towns will have to come up with the extra money."
Given the towns' financial situations, Mr. Manter said that coming up with more dollars for the high school means taking away dollars from other services such as garbage collection or libraries, for example.
He took the school committee to task for fiscal irresponsibility in using excess and deficiency funds (E&D) to offset budget increases over the last several years. By doing so, the school committee appeased the towns by reducing assessments, while continuing to spend more, Mr. Manter said.
This year, however, Mr. Nixon did not include any E&D funds in the proposed budget. With state revenues still in question and the possibility of further budget cuts, he told the subcommittee there might not be any E&D money available at all.
Mr. Manter said the FY11 budget increase should be cut by half, and recommended that the high school make further cuts by prioritizing program and staff needs.
Driver's Ed proposal
In other discussion, several Martha's Vineyard Drive for Life (MVDFL) board members attended the meeting in a follow-up to a previous request to the subcommittee to put driver's education back into the school curriculum.
The organization raised about $60,000 to furnish a classroom and equip it with two driving simulators and computers with software for training. The classroom portion of driver's education was offered as an elective in the high school's curriculum for two years before being cut from the fiscal year 2010 budget.
Mr. Nixon said that he and school superintendent James Weiss met with the teachers' union leadership and made a recommendation that the high school would provide a classroom and equipment, and contract a non-union instructor to teach driver's education. That would eliminate union conflicts and keep the cost down.
Mr. Nixon also proposed assigning sophomores to study hall periods to solve scheduling problems, since they can't take the class until they are 15 years, 9 months old.
Mr. Weiss said he and Mr. Nixon expect to have an answer from teachers' union leaders in a few weeks, in time for consideration before the FY11 budget is certified.
Mr. Baynes assured the MVDFL board members of the school committee's commitment to a driver's education program in the high school.
How the budget adds up
The high school's FY11 budget is the result of several meetings of school administrators, the budget subcommittee, and various town FinCom representatives since early October.
After reviewing the fourth version of the budget on November 16, Mr. Nixon told the subcommittee, "We cannot make another cut without deeply impacting our educational program or graduation requirements for our students."
As he explained, about one-third of the high school's budget goes to insurance and retirement costs, which account for 23.3 percent, and to operating costs for the physical plant, which are about 10 percent. Salaries account for 64 percent.
However, with negotiations under way for five bargaining units whose contracts expire in June 2010, salary costs are a question mark right now in FY11 school budgets.
The subject of class size, which comes up every year when school budgets are discussed, is a contract issue. Under the teachers' present contract, the maximum class size is 25. The high school's current enrollment totals 708 students, according to the October 1 census.
Mr. Nixon said that last year the high school cut almost $400,000 and 5.5 positions, and this year, $400,000 and an additional 4 to 5 positions.
Cuts have been made in all major subject areas, electives, special education and vocational costs, he added.
In a phone call after the meeting, Mr. Nixon said staff reductions relate to a three-year financial plan that FinCom members told him they would like to see after he was appointed principal in 2008.
When Mr. Nixon made his first budget presentation in November 2008, he figured the student population would decrease by about 70 students, or about 10 percent, over three years, based on current enrollment and projections. With that in mind, he planned to make a corresponding 10-percent reduction in the high school staff, which is about eight positions, over the same period. Instead of cutting 8 positions in 3 years, however, Mr. Nixon cut about 10 in 2 years. But in the meantime, the student population did not decrease at the projected rate.
To reduce the FY11 budget increase from a 3.9-percent increase to zero would mean another half-million dollars in cuts. And at this point in the budget process, Mr. Nixon said that means cutting people.
"For $500,000, you are talking about anywhere from 6 to 10 people," Mr. Nixon said. "And there are not 6 to 10 people that would equal that dollar value in this building, without getting rid of teachers that would cause us to do things like eliminate certain programs or to cancel electives. And it would definitely drive class sizes up through the roof. We're about cut out - that's what I'm basically saying."
While FinCom representatives who attended the budget meetings expressed sympathy the difficult task facing Mr. Nixon's and the subcommittee members, they reminded them that town revenues also are down and tax dollars stretched thin.
"I've heard the comment that maybe the towns will prefer to cut other school budgets to fund the high school," Tisbury FinCom vice chairman Jonathan Snyder said. "But if the high school doesn't cut its budget, other town departments will have to take big cuts. It seems to me it's up to the school committee to lead the best way they can, even it if means cutting services."
Priscilla Sylvia, who serves on the Oak Bluffs School and MVRHS school committees, reminded everyone at the November 16 meeting that Oak Bluffs already drastically cut its school budget this fall. "Increasing the high school's budget will mean more cuts to Oak Bluffs School," she said.
After the November 30 public hearing, MVRHS school committee members will vote to certify the FY11 budget on December 7.