Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School budget at $17.6 million

— File photo by Susan Safford

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) will hold a public hearing November 26 on its proposed $17,640,662 fiscal year 2014 (FY14) budget. The hearing starts at 7 pm in the Performing Arts Center at the high school.

The new budget is 5.5 percent higher than the FY13 budget of $16,938,627.

Last Friday, MVRHS principal Steve Nixon, along with accounts manager Mark Friedman, discussed the details in an interview with The Times in his office.

To start, Mr. Nixon said he hopes this year’s public hearing will be better attended than those in years past. “It’s a complicated budget, but we’ve always tried to send a message that we spend a lot of time and effort being responsible about it,” he said. “And we’re totally aware of the financial issues, not only nationally, but here on the Island, in the various towns. We’re extremely cautious in what we do, and I think it’s important for as many people as possible to understand the background of why we have what we have, and how we do it.”

One of the regional high school’s budget challenges is that it must provide academic, vocational, and special education programs all under one roof, Mr. Nixon pointed out.

“So basically, because we’re on an Island, we try to be everything to everybody, we try to keep all the kids invested in here, and there’s a cost to that,” he said. “And once everyone recognizes that, that’s not even touching on the fact that, and I’ll be a minimalist here, there is a 25 percent cost of living difference between us and other high schools.”

Fixed costs climb

That comes into play in the total fixed costs in the high school’s FY14 budget, Mr. Nixon added, which includes retirement and healthcare costs, insurance, debt and interest. Fixed costs increased by 13.27 percent over last year, from $4,763,844 to $5,396,169.

One bright spot is that unlike the trend in the past several years, when healthcare inflation was running between 8 to 12 percent, Mr. Friedman said state reforms made last year have impacted FY14 costs positively.

“The rate structure was almost reset, so starting with the new rates we are now experiencing since July 1 this year, and projecting them forward to next year, we actually think that line item is going to be about level-funded,” Mr. Friedman said.

A significant portion of the hike in fixed costs is due to an increase of $595,761 in the line item for residential care tuitions for special education students who must live in facilities off Island that provide the services they require.

Mr. Nixon said the high school received an unexpected influx of several new students in need of residential care who moved to the Island last year. Mr. Friedman said that based on information they have now, they anticipate 10 placements next year, realizing that may change at any time.

“So that has made us have to take a step back this year, to absorb that cost,” Mr. Nixon said. “We had wanted to bring in a school resource officer next year. And while we think it would be extremely valuable for our kids to begin a working relationship with a police officer, we weren’t able to handle the cost of that this year.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Nixon offered a positive perspective about the residential care cost increase. “We started a therapeutic support program this year, which was designed to bring some of those kids that would have been in residential placement back to the Island,” he said. “And if you were to take the kids in the building operating in that program, if it didn’t exist and some of those kids were away in residential care, that budget line would be even higher.”

The benefits are more than monetary, Mr. Nixon added. “The bottom line is, these are kids that would have to live somewhere else, separated from their families, but now they’re here on the Island, they’re making social connections here, and they’re living at home, so it’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “And unfortunately, there are some kids that have needs that are beyond our scope, and that’s when we have to look to residential care.”

Additional science teacher

Another significant increase in the budget is $89,088 in the salary line item for science teachers. “A positive thing that has come up is we continue to have a large amount of students interested in science,” Mr. Nixon said. “As the principal of a high school, I think it’s absolutely wonderful we had to hire a part-time science teacher this year because so many of our students want to take physics. That directly impacts education, and we think that is important. Science and math are a lot of the jobs of the future, and we have to make sure in this building that we stay on top of 21st century education in math and science.”

In view of the rising enrollments in science, Mr. Nixon said a full-time teacher should be added next year because of certification and class size issues.

As he explained, unlike English and history certifications, which allow a teacher to teach any course in those content areas, a science teacher certified in chemistry can’t teach biology without certification in that subject as well. In addition, science classrooms equipped with labs are limited in class size by Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Mr. Nixon said there are no other staff increases planned for next year. Although the superintendent’s office and shared services budget is up by 8.8 percent this year, Mr. Friedman said the high school’s portion increased by less than $30,000.

The high school’s budget must be certified by the school committee the first Monday in December. Since contract negotiations are currently underway with the teachers’ and other school employees’ bargaining units, Mr. Nixon said the draft budget he will present at the public hearing does not include any salary increases that may result. The budget does include costs for lane changes, steps, and longevity.

Also, Mr. Friedman said a lot of the revenue figures included in the budget are projections. The projections for state revenue funds, which are the largest source of the high school’s revenues, are usually announced in the winter, after MVRHS completes its budget process.

“It’s important to keep in mind, as much as we try to keep the bottom line within reason, depending on what we need to cut or add, revenue impacts that as well,” Mr. Nixon said. “Because for every dollar we lose in revenue, the bottom line goes up a dollar. In the five years I’ve been principal, our revenue has gone down every year. And so it makes it look like spending is going up, when in actuality, funding is going down.”

In conclusion, Mr. Nixon reiterated that he hoped many in the Island community would attend the budget public hearing Monday night. “At least what we would get to show them is that while we understand that there is lot of money involved, our kids at this school are extremely successful,” he said. “And they would not be that successful if it wasn’t for the support that this community has shown us, year after year. They have told us repeatedly that the kids on this Island are important, and they have shown that with their dollars, with their support, with their votes on our budget, on a regular basis, and we’re extremely appreciative. We know that we could not do what we do without them.”