Janitor's post focus of sharp UIRSD clash
The Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee members wrangled over budget issues, during a long and emotional evening Tuesday. And, when the debate ended, the committee members put the final decisions back in the hands of school administrators.
After a meeting to certify the district's fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget in December, the school committee learned that an additional shortfall of about $100,000 in state revenue might put that certification in jeopardy.
The committee members made the decision to certify the budget's bottom line at $8,093,811, and tasked superintendent of schools James Weiss, school business administrator Amy Tierney, and West Tisbury and Chilmark School administrators to come up with additional budget reduction recommendations to offset the revenue shortfall.
Tuesday, at West Tisbury School, Mr. Weiss presented a budget reduction plan outlining $105,137 in cuts, to meet the school committee's instructions to bring the percentage increase in the year to year budget down to 3.27 percent overall.
The plan included an option, recommended by West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt, to reduce the number of full-time custodians from five to four. Currently, Sharon Estrella, who is also a budget minded member of the town finance committee, works a full-time daytime shift, splitting her duties between custodial work and organizing and selling food, and cleaning the cafeteria when school is in session. During summers and vacations, she does full-time custodial work.
As a cost-saving measure, Mr. Halt proposed that a part-time server from Chartwell's Lunch Service could be hired for $13,500 annually as a contract employee, compared with the cost of Ms. Estrella, who receives $78,000 in salary and benefits as a custodian. The budget reduction plan also includes $10,000 for extra custodial services that might be needed because of the loss of one full-time custodian.
Using a part-time lunch server would mean a return to a full-time custodial work for Ms. Estrella. That would require her to move to a nighttime position. Since she has seniority, she would not lose her job. But a less senior nighttime custodian would.
Committee members react
The reactions of school committee members Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter of West Tisbury, Susan Parker of Chilmark, and chairman Marshall Segal to the custodian proposal underscored the difficulty of making decisions that affect people with longstanding relationships in a small community.
Ms. Estrella has served on West Tisbury's finance committee with Mr. Manter, who is also a police sergeant and a town selectman, for several years. Her husband, the popular West Tisbury fire Chief Manny Estrella, often works closely with Mr. Manter, as a first responder. Mr. Estrella also is West Tisbury School's head custodian.
Mr. Manter argued passionately against making the change that would affect Ms. Estrella's job. Departing from his usual budget vigilance, he went so far as to tell the committee to "forget the money" and said it bothered him on a moral and compassionate level to ask Ms. Estrella to change what she has been doing for years.
Asserting his administrative authority, Mr. Weiss emphasized several times during the discussion that the budget reductions chosen were those that would have the least affect on the majority of students, as the school committee had instructed him to do.
"I have a larger moral dilemma," he told Mr. Manter. "Every time I bring forward budget reductions, it impacts people. But I don't want to impact curriculum and instruction in this building."
Ms. Estrella is a budget hawk
Ironically, that was one of the arguments Ms. Estrella supported in a strongly worded letter she signed as West Tisbury finance committee chairman to the regional high school committee last October, urging them to keep their FY11 budget down.
"It is time for Martha's Vineyard Regional High School to be fiscally responsible and show the people that you are listening," the letter read. "The taxpayers have been very generous in the past and supportive in the past and now is the time for you to step up to the plate. We believe that the budget can be reduced without jeopardizing the student education."
In an emotional statement to the school committee, Ms. Estrella, who attended the meeting with her husband, said, "The thing that upsets me most is the lack of consideration for me by my own town."
But school committee members were uneasy about making administrative decisions.
'"There are times we've been warned not to micromanage," Mr. Segall said. "I'm very uncomfortable at this meeting that we've spent a lot of time discussing who's going to do what."
When the school committee's discussion seemed to reach an impasse, Ms. Parker called for a short recess and conferred with Mr. Weiss and Mr. Manter. When the committee reconvened about 10 minutes later, Ms. Parker made a motion to accept the budget reduction plan's bottom line of $105,137 and to allow the school administration to work out the details of how it would be done.
In other business, Mr. Weiss announced his plans for the administration at West Tisbury School, in the wake of Mr. Halt's deployment in January for a tour in Afghanistan as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Mr. Weiss chose the school's current assistant principal, Bob Lane, to fill the job from among four applicants. He also asked Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, a librarian and media specialist at Edgartown School, to serve as interim assistant principal. Mr. Weiss also thanked former Edgartown School principal Ed Jerome - an "ancient sage" the superintendent called him - for stepping in after Mr. Halt left and before an interim principal was named. It was a familiar role for Mr. Jerome, who filled in for Mr. Halt previously.
Mr. Lane will assume his duties on March 1. Although he has filled in for Mr. Halt for a few weeks at a time before, in a phone call yesterday, he admitted to being a little nervous about taking on the job full-time.
"I've got butterflies, but I think that's a good thing when you start a new position," Mr. Lane said. "It keeps you alert."
Mr. Halt is not due to be back until at least a year from now, Mr. Lane said. "I just want to keep the school going on the straight and narrow for Mike, so when he gets back, it's his school again. Hopefully he can just pick up right where he left off," he added.