West Tisbury fincom rejects rising UIRSD budget, as enrollment falls
With budgets rising and enrollment declining in the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools, the West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom) voted last week to not approve the Up-Island Regional School District's (UIRSD) proposed budget.
"The numbers have gotten too high, and I don't think the people of West Tisbury will support this," said Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter, who has monitored the school budget for many years in his multiple roles as a West Tisbury FinCom member, school committee member, and selectman.
During the school budgeting process last fall, the West Tisbury FinCom put in a written request to the UIRSD and Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District for level-funded fiscal year 2008 (FY08) budgets. At the FinCom meeting last week, superintendent of schools James Weiss outlined his office's budget, which showed a 4.98 percent increase, and the UIRSD budget, which increased by 3.82 percent. MVRHS Principal Peg Regan presented the regional high school's budget, which increased by 3.16 percent.
Salaries account for the biggest increases in the superintendent's budget and the regional high school budget, Mr. Weiss and Ms. Regan explained. Final budget amounts remain somewhat in limbo, Mr. Weiss said, due to contract negotiations in process, plus the uncertainty over town assessments due to changes mandated by the state's new wealth-based formula for allocating regional school costs.
Since the superintendent's budget is apportioned between the regional district's member towns, the FinCom did not vote on it separately. However, they did vote to approve the regional high school's budget, 3-2. Mr. Manter and Sharon Estrella voted no. Mr. Manter objected to the high school's use of excess and deficiency funds to offset budget increases, and the use of high school buses for transporting Tisbury and Oak Bluffs students.
Turning to the UIRSD budget, Mr. Weiss explained it totals $8,305,245, including an operating budget of $5,132,018 for West Tisbury School and $1,067,546 for Chilmark School. After listening to his presentation, however, the FinCom members questioned whether the numbers added up.
As committee member Richard Knabel pointed out, over the past five to six years, the UIRSD budget has gone up, while enrollment figures have gone down.
School census data shows that from 2002 to 2006, enrollment at Chilmark School dropped by 18.6 percent, and at West Tisbury School by 27 percent.
"So my question is, how is this budget responsive to this continuing decrease in enrollment?" Mr. Knabel asked. "And what is it you intend to do in the future, if not this year, to create or establish some sort of connection between costs and enrollment?"
The UIRSD includes three member towns - Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury - which share the costs of the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools.
Chilmark School Principal Diane Gandy, who works 85 percent or 10 months of the year, oversees 48 students in grades K-5 in a combined classrooms of K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. The staff includes three classroom teachers, three full-time teacher assistants in classrooms, and 1.8 special education teachers.
West Tisbury School's enrollment numbers 274 students in grades K-8, in 18 sections. Interim principal Ed Jerome and assistant principal Bob Lane work with a faculty of 18.9 classroom teachers, 18.1 teacher assistants in classrooms, and 4.5 special education teachers. The Chilmark and West Tisbury schools also use specialty teachers, guidance and resource staff, and school nurse and custodial services.
Mr. Weiss said the average class size at West Tisbury School is 16.9 students, with a teacher and paraprofessional in each one. School staffing has declined somewhat through attrition, he pointed out, with the loss of three full-time teachers over the past three years, and some reductions in specialty areas. Mr. Weiss said the number of faculty members relates to West Tisbury School's more individualized program for students, which uses a project-driven, hands-on approach.
"When you look through these numbers, there are an unbelievable number of questions," said Al DeVito, FinCom chairman. "How much does it cost for one teacher and one aide in a classroom? Is it $200,000 a year, is it $150,000 a year?"
Looking at the bottom line, Mr. DeVito pointed out, the budget has gone up by about 15 percent in two years. "It seems high to me," he said.
As the financial director for Island Elderly Housing, Mr. DeVito said many people have expressed their concerns about rising school costs. "The whole idea of fixed income and taxes and stuff is extremely important to these people. And you know, what do you do?" he asked. "I think at some point in time, you have to say no."
Dan Cabot, a newly elected UIRSD school committee member, told the FinCom members he observed a "lack of prioritizing" when he came in at the end of the budget process last November. Starting this spring, he suggested, the up-Island schools, through their school advisory committees, should examine all aspects of their programs, staffing, and goals.
"Schools have to understand that you can have a wish list, but you don't always get everything on your wish list," Mr. Cabot said.
After discussing cost issues in general, the ongoing debate over keeping Chilmark School open entered the FinCom members' discussion. With 322 students in the district, there is no need for two schools, Mr. DeVito said. "If Chilmark wants a school, Chilmark should pay for the school," he added.
Regardless of whether Chilmark School is a political or school committee issue, Mr. Weiss said, "I have two schools, and what we tried to do is bring you a budget of level service at those two locations, because we believe that's prudent to do. I would be remiss if I did not report a budget that funds the Chilmark School at the level of service that exists."
When Mr. DeVito called for a vote on the UIRSD budget, four of the five FinCom members voted not to approve it. Ms. Estrella abstained because she works at the West Tisbury School. The no vote means that a warrant article asking for voters to approve the town budget will reflect the FinCom's disapproval of the UIRSD budget. The school district budget could then be amended by voters on town meeting floor.
The Chilmark FinCom reviewed the UIRSD budget last week as well. The committee did not vote on it separately, as it will be included in a vote taken on the total town budget in February. The Aquinnah finance committee plans to review the UIRSD budget soon, chairman Isaac Taylor said this week.