Island officials hash out high school budget issues
Discussions about strategies for coping with the absence of a regional high school budget as July 1 approaches, which could result in hiring freezes and delayed maintenance projects, dominated two school committee meetings over the last week.
In a meeting scheduled by the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee with the All-Island Selectmen and All-Island Finance Committee last Thursday in the Vineyard Transit Authority's conference room, superintendent of schools James Weiss warned of serious repercussions for the high school's operation if a budget is not approved by July 1.
The fiscal year 2008 (FY08) budget remains in limbo unless voters in four of six Island towns approve using the state's wealth-based statutory formula over the existing regional per-pupil agreement. If the towns cannot agree on a budget for the regional high school by July 1, Mr. Weiss said the high school must be prepared for a worst-case scenario, in which the state's commissioner of education will impose an interim budget based on one-twelfth of the FY07 budget.
At last week's meeting Mr. Weiss said he sought a legal opinion from the school department's attorneys at Murphy, Lamere, and Murphy in Braintree because of his concerns about how the budget delay might affect fulfilling recently negotiated contractual obligations, especially for teachers.
Mr. Weiss said that based on recommendations of counsel, "Without asking probationary teachers back and putting off projects, we hope to be able to honor teacher contracts."
The difference between the FY07 and FY08 budgets amounts to about $645,000. Additional revenue coming in and excess and deficiency (E&D) funds put towards the budget narrow the gap to about $356,000, or $35,000 a month, Mr. Weiss explained.
Under DOE regulations adopted in January, all member towns in a regional school district must approve an existing regional agreement, while only two-thirds of the towns must approve the state's statutory formula.
While the Island's regional agreement bases town assessments on a per-pupil cost, the state's statutory formula uses a combination of factors, including a town's real estate values, income levels, and percentage of spending on high school education according to the state-calculated "foundation level."
Under the state's formula, Oak Bluffs's assessment decreases by about $435,000 and Aquinnah's by $61,000, while Chilmark's increases by $75,258, Edgartown's by $86,000, Tisbury's by $241,000, and West Tisbury's by $122,000.
The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District school committee certified the FY07-08 budget using the regional formula agreement. However, Oak Bluffs voted at town meeting this spring to go with the state statu-tory formula instead. Aquinnah voters also approved high school budget figures based on the state's formula.
Lacking a unanimous vote by the school district's member towns, the MVRHS school committee then voted to recertify the budget using the statutory formula and submit it back to the towns for approval, which requires holding special town meetings.
Island towns continue to remain divided over the assessment differences between the two formulas. On Tuesday night, West Tisbury voters approved the high school's FY08 budget using the statutory formula, in the first of several special town meetings scheduled in Island towns to address the issue. Tisbury scheduled a special town meeting regarding the high school budget on June 26. It will be followed by similar meetings in Edgartown and Chilmark on June 28.
As Mr. Weiss pointed out at last week's meeting, "The question has not been whether the high school budget is appropriate - the question is whether the town assessments are appropriate."
The divisive effect of the state's formula on regional school district agreements, criticized by many town and school officials across the state, was demonstrated at last week's meeting.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said that although the town has money set aside to cover the increased assessment, "We want to continue to fight what we feel is unjust." He added that it is not the town's intention to put teachers out of work.
His fellow selectman Tom Pachico said he plans to fight the issue at Tisbury's special town meeting on June 26 by urging voters to turn the high school budget down. And if they do, he added, "My intention is to sit tight and let the state come down. We have no right to give free cash to the school if the town votes it down."
Mr. Pachico referred to the reduction in Oak Bluffs's assessment as a "scholarship fund" for the town provided at the expense of other Island taxpayers.
The biggest inequities in town assessments using the state formula occur during a transitional phase-in period in the first two years, Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck pointed out. He argued that at the end of the transition period, the differences even out and the state's formula amounts will come out close to those in the Island's existing regional formula agreement.
However, school committee member John Bachellor of Tisbury said he was given different numbers for the so-called transition period from various education department officials, ranging from 5 to 10 years.
Mr. Weiss said that his office and also a delegation from Tisbury had approached both state education department officials and Senator Robert O'Leary and Rep. Eric Turkington about bypassing the transition phase. They were advised the process would require legislative action, which was very unlikely to happen.
MVRHS Margaret (Peg) Regan suggested that for all practical purposes, the towns' acceptance of the state statutory formula offers the last chance for the high school to get a budget in place by July 1. "There is too much anger this year to resolve it - but we need to move forward," she said.
Ms. Regan urged the selectmen and finance committee members to start work now to come up with a regional agreement acceptable to everyone for next year. "It's up to us to come up with a solution. We don't want to be at the mercy of the state," she added.
As a first step, Mr. Weiss suggested, the towns should commit to coming up with a plan and form a committee "to fight it out."
The group agreed to designate one selectman and one finance committee member from each town to serve on a committee to craft a new regional agreement. Mr. Weiss offered to set up the first meeting, which has since been scheduled for 4:30 pm on June 27 at the MVRHS library conference room.
At a school committee meeting this week on Monday night, Mr. Weiss said teacher contracts were issued on June 1 to teachers with professional status and most of the probationary teachers.
"We are postponing new hires until a budget is in place, and will replace departing teachers on a case-by-case basis," Mr. Weiss said, referencing a budget action plan he distributed to the school committee.
"The community needs to understand some positions will go unfilled if there is no fiscal year 2008 budget," noted school committee member Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs.
Although about eight positions have been non-renewed because of teachers retiring, Mr. Weiss said, "It would be a huge deficit if those go unfilled."
Among his other 10 recommendations, Mr. Weiss suggested issuing work agreements to paraprofessionals and secretaries on June 15, based on the terms of their recently negotiated contract. He also advised postponing the awarding of the bid for purchasing 18 new buses, purchasing supplies and equipment, and implementing summer maintenance projects until after July 1.
In addition, Mr. Weiss drafted a letter to Education Commissioner David Driscoll making a case for a budget amount more than one-twelfth of the FY07 budget. "We hope we won't have to send this letter," Mr. Weiss said.