Every year during the budgeting process for Island public schools, currently under way for fiscal year 2009, educators, administrators, and school committee members take a critical look at trends in declining enrollment and the possible impact on maintaining programs.
A Times article last week, "Island school enrollment continues to decline," noted that the latest school census taken in October shows a 2.3 percent decline in the number of students since last year. Total public school enrollment has declined by eight percent since 2003. Conversely, the Island schools' operating budgets have continued to grow, with a 15.2 percent increase over the same time period (see chart).
"Every time you lose a child, you don't necessarily lose dollars," said superintendent of public schools James Weiss in a phone call last week. While declining enrollment may have the potential to translate into future decreases in school budgets, many critical factors come into play, he said.
"You have to get to a critical mass, if you will, to have a reduction," Mr. Weiss said. For example, whether a classroom teacher has 19 or 20 students, there will not be any savings in that teacher's salary unless enrollment decreases to a point where a teaching position may be eliminated, he pointed out.
"If you look at total enrollment, it may be down 20 students, but that may average out to one student per grade, which won't have any impact on costs at all," Mr. Weiss said.
In addition, a school system only has a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to curriculum, he pointed out. "For example, just because you lose enrollment at the high school doesn't mean you're going to eliminate foreign language. You might have fewer teachers, but you're not going to eliminate the program."
At Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), enrollment decreased by 36 students from last year, a decline of 4.5 percent. In looking at enrollment trends in terms of budget, MVRHS committee chairman Susan Parker said, "You have to look for places that can be trimmed without doing harm. I think people are trying to be mindful of costs, but at the same time, not wanting to do any damage to the program. We want to meet the needs of the students and be able to offer a program that addresses both the range of their needs and their interests."
The cost of special education programs and services also contributes significantly to school budgets. A major portion of the increase requested by Mr. Weiss in his FY09 budget, recently approved by the All-Island School Committee, has to do with special education. "Our special needs are significant, and that's a mandated program," Mr. Weiss said. "Although we don't have any choice, it's also the right thing to do, to give everybody an appropriate education. We work hard at that, to put special education programs into place to meet needs that are here now."
Fixed costs present another difficult challenge, representing a large percentage of all school budgets in comparison to discretionary costs, Mr. Weiss pointed out. "While the number of students has been declining, the costs for things like heat, lights, health, care, have been increasing at rates higher than inflation," he said. "And those are particularly important for the regional districts, the high school and the up-Island, because everything is included in their budgets, including the cost of health insurance for all staff members. In the down-Island towns, that cost is in the town's budget, so it's certainly a cost to the schools, but the cost itself is found in the town's budget."
While he says he understands that rising fixed costs are unavoidable, Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter said he believes that school budgets should be examined closely to see if it might be possible to find better ways to accomplish educational goals without necessarily spending more money.
As someone who has served on both the high school and the up-Island school committees over the past nine years and as a West Tisbury finance committee member for several years previously, Mr. Manter has been critical of the high per-pupil costs up-Island in operating the West Tisbury School (283 students) and Chilmark School (42 students).
"With the declining school population, the up-Island school district struggles with the fact they're operating two facilities, which puts a tremendous financial burden on the district as a whole," Mr. Manter said. "I believe the Chilmark School is down to 42 students. When you look at the per-pupil cost, it's extraordinary. And I've always been concerned about the high per-pupil cost in the up-Island district. I think we could do better, to look at that."
Taxpayers in West Tisbury, and Island-wide for that matter, are concerned about rising costs, Mr. Manter said. "Certainly nobody wants to crimp the quality of education one bit, but they are concerned about the dollar attached to it," he pointed out. "Everybody supports quality education for everybody, there's no question - including myself. It's not necessarily finding the dollars, but more a matter of finding out how to get by without those dollars, again, without compromising the needs that we have to meet."
Noting that a recent focus on the Island has been on community preservation, Ms. Parker said, "I feel we can't look at these issues in isolation. If you want to preserve your community, one of the ways to do it is to make sure you preserve your schools, by being fiscally responsible but also mindful of how important it is to provide good programs and good services."