Up-Island region votes budget
Salaries, insurance, and special education costs account for some of the biggest increases in the fiscal year 2008 (FY08) budget certified by the Up-Island Regional School District's (UIRSD) school committee last week. The FY08 budget for the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools together totals $8,305,246, up 3.82 percent over last year's adjusted budget of $7,999,301.
Looking at the separate budget totals for the two schools, West Tisbury School's FY08 budget of $5,132,018 shows an increase of 4.25 percent over last year's adjusted budget of $4,922,743. Chilmark School's FY08 budget at $1,067,546 is up by 9.04 percent over last year's adjusted budget of $979,022.
The UIRSD's share of the superintendent's office expenses and shared programs among schools Island-wide actually decreased this year by $6,887, due to the region having a smaller portion of elementary school students. Projected elementary and high school salary increment adjustments and liability insurance accounted for two of the bigger increases in the superintendent's office budget.
This year superintendent of schools James Weiss is conducting contract negotiations with the teachers, support staff, secretaries, custodians, and cafeteria workers. With negotiations in process, a "placeholder" amount for salary adjustments was included in the budget with the understanding that the final figure may be different.
Increased special education and Chapter 766 expenses, including teacher salary increases and longevity pay, account for more than $27,000 of the Chilmark School's budget and $22,000 of West Tisbury School's. Residential tuitions for students from both schools total $91,884.
Chilmark School's expenses include the addition next year of a special education teacher needed to work with a student one-on-one and a teacher for English Language Learners (ELL).
Insurance costs also accounted for some big increases. Health insurance costs for West Tisbury School retirees rose from $94,077 to $145,899, a difference of $51,822, about 55 percent, from last year. Chilmark School's health insurance costs went up by 12.8 percent, from $96,284 to $108.605.
Building insurance for West Tisbury School increased from $42,000 to $47,840, about 13.9 percent. Chilmark School's building insurance went up about 6.8 percent, from $14,550 to $15,540.
The school committee approved the purchase of two buses in the FY08 budget, using $140,000 from Excess and Deficiency funds, and two others purchased by issuing bonds with the regional high school. The committee decided in a meeting several weeks ago to include a fee for bus maintenance in the per-run cost charged to Tisbury and Oak Bluffs for their use of the UIRSD's buses, which will offset some of the district's maintenance expenses.
School committee member and West Tisbury selectman J. "Skipper" Manter cast the lone dissenting vote against the budget. In a phone call a few days after the school committee meeting, he explained some of the issues on which he based his decision.
"I've been on the school committee for eight years now, and I've probably voted against more budgets than I have for," said Mr. Manter, who also formerly served as a West Tisbury finance and advisory committee member. "We have approximately 150 less students than we did back in the late 1990s. The overall viewpoint of the average taxpayer is to question why we would maintain the same staffing levels and costs would rise overall."
With a decline in students, Mr. Manter asked why the district operates two schools when one facility could handle both.
"I respect Chilmark wanting to maintain its own school, in terms of its history and its value to the community, but the latest analysis shows it is costing West Tisbury approximately $600,000 to operate the two schools," he said.
With West Tisbury considering multi-million dollar projects such as a new town hall, library, and police station, Mr. Manter said, "It is up to the voters to decide how much they want their taxes to go up. The school is a big part of the share. Right or wrong, that's what it is, a big chunk of cash, and people look at it carefully."
Mr. Manter said he understands that even with level funding, salary adjustments and insurance costs account for budget increases. However, as far as staffing needs go, he said, "We're not under contract for how many we have to have." When three teachers retired a few years ago, he said he had hoped the school administration would reorganize so they did not have to replace them, but the administration chose to replace them instead.
During budget discussions at a UIRSD school committee last month attended by West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt and Chilmark School principal Diane Gandy, Mr. Manter had suggested combining some classes and reducing the number of teachers and paraprofessionals.
Mr. Halt said that in his two years as principal, the West Tisbury School staff decreased by five. In defense of his budget and staffing, Mr. Halt said it meets school improvement goals and the direction of the School Advisory Committee.
"I believe the Up-Island Regional School District is doing a stellar job educating its students for the realities of the 21st century," said school committee vice chair Susan Parker this week. "The children are receiving the academic training they require, as well as the enrichment opportunities that will help them find balance in their lives."
As Mr. Halt has frequently reminded the school committee, Ms. Parker pointed out, while the number of students has decreased, their needs have increased. "With the largest portion of our budget covering wages and benefits and the need to provide salaries that enable us to recruit and retain gifted educators, I believe the final increase of less than 4 percent is commendable," Ms. Parker said.
Although Mr. Manter's arguments may have merit, school committee member Dan Cabot said after last week's meeting, "I for one didn't think we should be starting in December and trying to micro-manage the budget. Next year, the budget process should start with the school advisory committee and they should build choices into the school improvement plan." That way, Mr. Cabot said, when the school committee can make decisions about those choices during the budget process next year based on financial priorities.
Although the school committee voted to approve the budget, they did not vote on the assessment amounts for the up-Island towns because of uncertainty about changes mandated by the Massachusetts board of education (BOE) in the formula for allocating regional school district costs.
The state's wealth-based formula, which is supposed to take effect this year, is a divisive subject for Island towns, as it has been for many across the state. The current regional formula agreed to and used by the six Island towns is based on enrollment. The state's formula uses an "aggregate wealth model" for determining required local contribution amounts, with property values and personal income levels given equal weight.
Using the new formula will result in a reduction in school costs for Aquinnah, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs, while leaving Chilmark, Tisbury, and West Tisbury scrambling to come up with more money for their towns' shares. For example, while Oak Bluffs' share for the regional high school would decrease by almost $400,000, Tisbury's share would increase by about $314,000.
In the past the Massachusetts state aid formulas were determined by dividing either the equalized property valuation (EPV) or some form of income by a denominator such as enrollment or population. The new formula calculates a town's aggregate wealth based on its total EPV and its total annual income.
According to associate commissioner of education Jeff Wulfson, another piece recently added to the formula especially affects the Cape and Islands, where high property values are disproportionate to taxpayers' income levels. The legislature set a cap of 82.5 percent on the amount of local contributions towns must make to a school districts' foundation budget, so that every district is guaranteed to receive state aid for at least 17.5 percent of the foundation budget.
Last week the BOE postponed its publicized Dec. 19 announcement regarding regulations on using the state assessment formula until sometime in January. Public comment received by the BOE from educators, politicians, and concerned parents brought forth a new proposed regulation, said Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs. Under the proposed regulation, a district school committee would decide which allocation formula would go to town meeting floor, she said, instead of leaving it up to the individual towns.
In the meantime, Ms. Tierney said, the UIRSD is going forward with drafting an article to change the district's regional agreement so that West Tisbury and Chilmark would each pay 80 percent of the debt on the school facilities they own, and the non-owning towns, including Aquinnah, will each pay 10 percent. If approved by voters, the change in the regional agreement would not take effect until fiscal year 2009.
Commenting Tuesday on the UIRSD's progress so far, school committee chair Roxanne Ackerman said, "We have such wonderful schools here on Martha's Vineyard, and we're always trying to become better and to grow, so we're looking forward to some interesting exchanges with the rest of the towns, and hopefully we'll have a good budget and we'll have a good year coming up.
"We have a lot of work to do, even with all of the money we have," she concluded.