West Tisbury fin com questions school budget increase

At a joint meeting of the West Tisbury selectmen, the town finance committee (fincom), and representatives of the Up-Island school committee last week, fincom members pressed the school committee to explain why the town’s district assessment will increase, even as enrollment at the West Tisbury School continues to decline. The fincom voted in January not to recommend the regional school budget at the upcoming annual town meeting,

“There doesn’t seem to be any answers, so we thought it would be good to have a little discussion about how we feel about the region and how it’s being handled,” finance committee chairman Sharon Estrella said at the start of the February 23 meeting.

“Enrollments are dropping, budgets are increasing, and it doesn’t seem to level out.”

The Up-Island school committee approved a budget of $8.35 million for FY2012 back in December, an increase of $190,151, or 2.33 percent, from the current year. As a result, assessments for the three member towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah will increase by $169,857, or 2.1 percent.

Under the terms of its regional agreement, each of the town’s assessment is based on the enrollment per town in each school.

Although the Up-Island district’s enrollment decreased slightly in fiscal year 2011, the number of students enrolled from Aquinnah and Chilmark decreased more than in West Tisbury, forcing the latter town to pay a higher percentage of the overall district budget.

As a result, West Tisbury’s assessment is projected to increase $252,080 next year, or 4.53 percent; while Aquinnah’s assessment will decrease $71,806, or 11.3 percent, and Chilmark’s share will drop $10,420, or 0.55 percent.

Tension over the budget is nothing new, especially in the town of West Tisbury, which annually pays the largest share by a wide margin. In recent years the West Tisbury finance committee has raised the possibility of dropping out of the district, arguing it would cost the town less to operate its elementary school independently.

The question of whether West Tisbury pays too much resurfaced this year after it was revealed that an additional classroom may needed in Chilmark, due to a projected increase in enrollment.

The initial regional school budget called for an increase of just 0.09 percent, but that figure jumped to an increase of 2.33 percent, when the the cost of the additional classroom was added. In response, the West Tisbury finance committee voted at their January 25 meeting not to recommend the 2012 Up-Island school district budget.

During that meeting, finance committee members argued that the Chilmark school costs are too expensive and the budget too complicated.

At the joint meeting last week, finance committee members cited an article and editorial that appeared in the Vineyard Gazette, which reported that at least one member of the finance committee suggested the Chilmark School should be closed.

Ms. Estrella said that report was inaccurate.

“We have never advocated closing that school. I welcome that school. What we have done for these past years is [advocate] to withdraw from the region and let Chilmark be the region. But we never point blank said close the school,” she said.

But Up-Island school committee chairman Dan Cabot defended the structure of the district and the importance of the Chilmark School. “It is not a business association. There were some financial advantages to forming a region . . . but that’s not why the region was formed,” Mr. Cabot said. “It was formed for academic reasons and for collegial reasons. And there was never any question there would be a little school for Chilmark students. That’s been a given. I think as long as there is a region there will be a Chilmark School,”

Mr. Cabot argued the town would not save that much money by dropping out of the district, and he noted that voters in the past have supported staying in the region.

“The issue has been brought to town meeting both in the budget and as a separate warrant article. And over and over and over the town has supported the concept that formed the region . . . I was pretty disappointed that the vote this time was ‘the Chilmark school costs too much. I vote no.’”

Finance committee member Greg Orcutt said the main reason he voted against the budget was that he didn’t fully understand it.

“There is more that brings us together than separates us . . . the product is good, everyone I met at the school has been a quality person. But that’s not the issue, it’s about this group understanding the numbers.”

Mr. Orcutt questioned the staff-to-student ratio at the Chilmark School, which is the highest on the Island and among the highest in the state. He also asked why the town spends so much more per pupil that the other Island towns.

The Up-Island district spends approximately $20,000 per pupil, compared to $14,000 per student in Oak Bluffs. “If we could provide that quality of education at a cost that is a little lower, I would be very happy with the Up-Island Regional School District. I think it’s a little rich,” Mr. Orcutt said.

Superintendant of schools James K. Weiss explained the process for drafting the budget this year. The initial budget called for an increase of just under one percent. The increase was, he said, largely due to negotiated raises in the teacher’s contract and a 10 to 12 percent increase in health insurance costs.

But school officials then learned that enrollment figures would force the Chilmark School to add another classroom, driving the increase up.

“The school committee debated, discussed and agonized over that budget during several meetings, and in the end they said: you did what we asked you to do. You have the same services, the same people, and this is an added situation in Chilmark,” he said.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell asked why the budget for the West Tisbury School hasn’t dropped to reflect the trend of declining enrollment, and why the staff-to-student ration remained so high.

Mr. Weiss said the class sizes in the district are only slightly smaller than the rest of the Island, where the average classroom is between 14-18 students. “That’s pretty typical here. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but that’s the accepted class size.”

He also said that school leaders have tried in the past to increase class sizes to save money, only to be met with protests. “Frankly they were forced back down because class sizes are valued to a high degree on the Island . . . the few times we tried that in other schools we haven’t gotten far,” he said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Orcutt explained why the finance committee took such a hard line on the regional school budget. “There’s a lot pain out there, a lot of people are hurting. I want to provide a quality education, but I want to do it in a financially reasonable way,” he said.