Martha's Vineyard Regional High School's (MVRHS) proposed fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget is up to $12.45 million in total assessed expenses, an increase of 11.8 percent over last year's budget of $11.34 million. In a public hearing scheduled for last night, Principal Margaret (Peg) Regan planned to give a detailed presentation to the school advisory council and school committee's budget subcommittee. The school committee will vote on whether to certify the budget next Monday at 7 pm in the high school library conference room.
"We've hit sort of a perfect storm of events, in terms of having to purchase buses and put in a wastewater system starting next year, and then looking at reorganization of the superintendent's office to add a facilities manager, plus contractual obligations that jumped up this year significantly," Ms. Regan said in a phone call Tuesday.
Instruction costs a big factor
Instruction costs, including shared personnel in the superintendent's office, account for 68.5 percent of the FY09 budget, about $123,000 more than last year. Salaries for many teachers, paraprofessionals, and secretaries reflect increases from contracts negotiated last spring.
As instruction costs have increased, however, student enrollment has declined. The high school population - 765 students - is at 1998 numbers, but there are about 10 more teachers than there were in 1998. Although Ms. Regan said she did not cut 10 teachers this year, she sought to reduce the number by not filling some positions, such as a part-time vocational teacher, a teaching assistant, and a social studies teacher that resigned. She had hoped that the number of teachers might decline through attrition at the same pace as enrollment, but that did not happen. Consequently, she proposed cutting 2.9 full-time equivalent teachers and 2.5 paraprofessionals and adding no new staff members in the FY09 budget.
Angst about arts
The budget subcommittee asked Ms. Regan to go through the instructional budget to look for programs showing reduced numbers with the decline in enrollment. One of those areas was music, she said, and she made the decision to drop a voice class and piano lessons. However, a soundtrack technology course and instrumental, choral and major music programs will not be impacted, Ms. Regan said. "We're trying to cut around the edges and not take away the whole program," added assistant superintendent for business affairs Amy Tierney.
Currently, Janis Wightman heads the music department, working with music teacher Dan Murphy and drama and television teacher Kate Murray. Of the three, Ms. Murray faces the most difficult situation, Ms. Regan explained. Enrollment in the television course has slowly dropped. And although a significant number of students enjoy drama, about 50, that translates into three classes rather than the five necessary for a full-time teaching position.
"So what I hope, and my desire is not to lose the drama program, is to see if Kate can work in some way in the Performing Arts Center when [director/manager] Jim Novack retires in September, and stay on in some capacity in working with kids on assemblies, lighting, soundtrack - teaching them the technical part." That way Ms. Murray would keep a full-time position, Ms. Regan said, as a drama teacher three-fifths of the day and a performing arts center instructor the other two-fifths. "We're looking at creative ways to keep people in jobs, even if it's not exactly what they were doing before," Ms. Regan added.
Many parents and students, upset by the proposed arts programs cuts, planned to attend last night's budget hearing. Ms. Regan said she could empathize with their feelings. "There are a lot of different ways to look at it, but there is no program that people don't value," she said. However, she added, she based her decision strictly on enrollment numbers.
While some people might argue that athletics are less valuable and should be cut first before arts programs, Ms. Regan pointed out that about 600 of the high school's 765 students are involved in athletics for one to three seasons. "So even though the school's enrollment has declined, enrollment in athletics has not declined," she said.
Other rising costs
The high school's share of the salary costs for a new facilities manager, $14,000, accounts for the largest increase in the superintendent's budget for shared administrative programs. The All-Island School Committee (AISC) approved Mr. Weiss's FY09 budget on Nov. 8, which included the new position, plus the cost of additional special education preschool and elementary school programs that will be shared among Island school districts.
A facilities manager will work with school administrators and head custodians in overseeing all of the Island's school buildings, including maintenance and capital projects. Mr. Weiss told the AISC he believes that having a facilities manager will reduce facilities' costs over time, although the initial outlay for a salary and benefits package will offset that.
In looking at other budget increases, the operations and maintenance costs for the superintendent's office are up by 10.6 percent, partly due to upgrades to the computer system and the purchase of a new copier, Ms. Tierney said.
Contract negotiations completed last spring for custodians and food service workers also increased the costs of maintenance and operation of the superintendent's building and high school. Four of the public school system's unions received a new top step in wage increases under the new contracts, with 3.5 percent for teachers, 4 percent for paraprofessionals, and 5 percent for secretaries and custodians, in addition to salary increases.
Athletic stipends to pay coaches also increase in FY09 from $140,000 total to $167,000. "That's because our coaches are the lowest-paid coaches, certainly on the Cape and Islands, and possibly in the state," Ms. Regan said. Another standout athletic expense is the cost of ice time for hockey players, budgeted at $7,000 next year.
In looking at fixed costs, general liability insurance reflects the most dramatic jump, from $15,000 in FY08 to $135,000 in FY09. "You can't get liability for wind damage anymore," Ms. Tierney explained. "With the storms we've had on the Island, insurance is very difficult to get for a building and campus this size."
In addition, health insurance policies also are going up by 10 to 12 percent. "Even though we saved money when people changed to less expensive plans, even the low-cost HMO's are going up by possibly 12 percent," Ms. Tierney said.
Over and under the road
In planning for the purchase of new school buses and improvements to the high school's wastewater system next year, Ms. Tierney suggested to the high school committee that it would be more economical to do one bond rather than two. The regional high school district is seeking to bond $1.5 million for the wastewater system and the bus purchases, plus the replacement of a dump truck, off-Island minivan, and vocational education van. The bus debt principal and interest payment will come to about $352,000 in FY09.
"It's hard to swallow these big debt issues, but for the past three years, we had had nothing in capital related to busing," Ms. Tierney pointed out. "We used to buy buses every five years, and we've had these buses for eight years, so we've had three years of what equates to no car payments, basically. Now that it's time to replace them, here comes that car payment again." Depending on when the wastewater construction plans are completed and the project started, the debt payment will start in either 2009 or 2010, Ms. Tierney said.
The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School school committee will meet on Dec. 3 to vote on whether to certify the budget. The committee might decide to make changes in the budget's bottom line, based on discussions at last night's public hearing, Ms. Regan said. They also may decide to offset the 11.8 percent FY09 budget increase with excess and deficiency (E&D) funds, she added. Under Massachusetts 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 member towns for money for capital projects or other kinds of emergency funds. Any funds in excess of 5 percent have to be returned to the towns.
The Massachusetts Department of Education will release state statutory assessments in the third week in January 2009, Ms. Tierney said. At that time, school officials will begin meting with Island town finance committees and selectmen. Copies of the high school budget are available at the school, in town halls, and the superintendent's office.