High school committee votes $14 million budget, up $625,000 from fiscal 2007
The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) district school committee approved a $14 million 2007-2008 budget Monday night, an increase of about $625,000 over last year.
Instruction costs, which account for 66 percent of the total operating expense, increased by $550,000. With negotiations underway for teachers' salaries, principal Peg Regan recommended adding $20,000 to the line item for contract stipends as a cushion in anticipation of possible additional expenses. The school committee approved the change, which brought the total assessed expenses for 2007-2008 to $11,338, an increase of about 3.16 percent over last year.
Other areas of increased expenses include fixed costs, up by $70,000, and special education residential care, up by $147,507. Total operating expenses reflect an increase of 4.58 percent over last year. The school committee's budget subcommittee recommended offsetting the budget increase to about 3.6 percent with $250,000 from the excess and deficiency (E&D) fund.
Under Massachusetts state law, regional high schools are allowed to keep up to 5 percent of their operating budgets in an E&D account every year, similar to a town's free cash, so they won't have to go back to the towns for money for capital projects or other kinds of emergency funds. Any funds in excess of the 5 percent have to be returned to the towns.
"Although some people are skeptical about using the E&D fund to offset budget increases," Ms. Regan said, "I think it can be managed so it is not depleted, but used as a resource. It's not our money - it's the community's."
Bonding the purchase of 12 new buses will minimally impact the budget this year because only $28,000 will be expended for interest. However, the following year, the cost will jump. Ms. Regan suggested that if the high school was allowed to put E&D funds into a stabilization fund, it could offset future expenditures like buses and level off the amount of fluctuation in the budget at 3 to 3.5 percent for the Island towns. Authorization for the stabilization fund would require a unanimous vote by the Island towns, Ms. Regan said.
The total assessed expenses to the towns rose by about 3.16 percent this year, up by $356,000 over last year. The distribution of assessments shown on the budget approved Monday night is based on the current regional high school formula.
During previous budget subcommittee meetings, various Island Finance and Advisory Committee (FinCom) members weighed in with their towns' requests. West Tisbury asked for a zero percent increase in the high school's budget, as did Oak Bluffs.
Tisbury FinCom member Don Amaral relayed his town's request to hold any increase to no more than 3.5 percent, which realistically took into account the cost of buying buses, rising insurance premiums, and cost of living increases.
J. "Skipper" Manter, an Up-Island Regional District school committee member and a new member on the regional high school committee from West Tisbury, warned that using the E&D fund to offset the budget meant that next year's assessments to the towns would be built on a 4.58 percent increase in the operating budget. The school committee cannot depend on using the E&D funds every year, he said, and recommended sending the E&D money back to the towns to reduce assessments for next year.
Mr. Amaral pointed out that while using the E&D money this year still leaves about $400,000 to $500,000 in the fund, he thought Mr. Manter's idea has merit for next year.
"Historically, the high school has used E&D to reduce the budget, usually to offset large expenses," said Superintendent James Weiss. However, he added that new rules may soon be put into effect by the state department of education concerning the use of E&D funds, requiring the high school to get permission from the towns to use the money.
"This could cause us some difficulty in the future," Mr. Weiss warned. "It's good to use the E&D fund this year in case the state changes the rules."
Mr. Manter also questioned whether running the school bus operation in-house was still economically feasible. He suggested putting the school bus contract out for bid to compare costs. Mr. Weiss said that transportation costs have been reduced and reimbursements will increase over time. He disagreed with the idea of spending the time and energy to put the contract out to bid. He also felt it would create insecurity and undermine the confidence of the transportation staff.
School committee member Les Baynes of Edgartown made a motion to approve the budget and to allow the $20,000 leeway towards contract stipends, which the committee approved.
"I feel very, very good about going forth with this budget as it stands," Ms. Regan said, adding her thanks to the budget subcommittee for all of the thinking that went into planning the budget 10 months in advance.
Last night, she presented the budget to selectmen from Island-wide in a public hearing in the school library. Next Monday, the school committee will meet at 7 pm in the high school's library conference room to certify the budget, followed by a regular meeting.