Chilmark officials say ‘Wow’ to school costs hike

The Chilmark School. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Chilmark selectmen met this week with school officials over next year’s Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School budget, which totals $17.64 million, up 5.5 percent over the current year’s spending plan.

School superintendent James H. Weiss and Amy Tierney, the business administrator for the school system, joined the selectmen who had asked for the meeting.

The superintendent’s budget, which will increase 8.8 percent next year, was a target of the selectmen’s questioning of the school leaders.

Mr. Weiss presented a breakdown of what the Vineyard school system spends on the salaries of the superintendent, assistant superintendent, the special education director, business administrator and top step for teacher salaries, all of which are included in the superintendent’s budget.

Mr. Weiss said that Martha’s Vineyard pays about the same or in some cases less than other school districts for the top administrators and teacher salaries. He said special education costs are largely driving the increase in the budget.

He added that between 18 to 20 percent of Vineyard students participate in special education programs, compared to the state average of between 12 and 14 percent.

“We had about 49 to 51 percent of the superintendent’s budget last year [going to special education]; this year its 58 percent, next year its 61 percent..,” he said. “As the need grows, the budget grows.”

Mr. Weiss said if you backed out the increases in special education, the superintendent’s budget would increase by only 3.6 percent. About $200,000 of the $357,000 increase in the superintendent’s budget is for special education.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” selectman Bill Rossi said.

Mr. Weiss said the up-Island school committee this week approved a FY 2014 budget up 3.5 percent over the current year. He said West Tisbury’s share is down four percent, Chilmark’s is up 15.5 percent, and Aquinnah’s is up around 33 percent.

The overall budget for the up-Island school district for next year is $2.3 million, and the assessment for Chilmark will rise by $308,000. The announcement brought an exasperated, “Wow,” from selectman Warren Doty.

The increase is largely driven by the up-Island school committee’s decision to put money in the budget to cover the cost of post-retirement employee benefits, previously an unfunded liability.

Mr. Doty also questioned the costs of the new superintendent’s office, slated for construction next to the high school at the current site of the MVTV studios.

School officials have asked the town to include an article in the warrant of the annual town meeting asking for an as yet unspecified amount to cover the town’s share of the design phase of the new building. Mr. Weiss said the final figure would be based on discussions with the architects and revealed to the town in the coming weeks. He said the architect gave a rough estimate of $5 million for the final cost.

But Ms. Tierney said the school building committee thought that cost too high and asked project planners to go back and come up with a plan priced closer to $3 million.

“We asked them what a $3 million building looked like, and the answer wasn’t good. A $3 million building would be sort of a metal building with a steel structure. We looked at modular buildings, but when you get to that size, they are only 15 percent less than if you were building with wood,” she said.

Mr. Weiss said the current superintendent’s office off West Spring Street in Vineyard Haven is cramped and inadequate for the school’s needs. “The conference room is on the second floor and there is no elevator, so if we wanted to have a special education meeting we would have to have it somewhere else,” he said.

In other business, selectmen next met with Krishana Collins, who was selected as the new resident farmer of the historic Tea Lane farm by a joint panel of the selectmen and Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank town advisory committee back in May.

Ms. Collins is a well-known flower farmer and proprietor of Bluebird Farm off Old County Road in West Tisbury where she grows a variety of flowers including zinnias, lilies, sunflower, and dahlias as well as bok choy and salad greens.

As part of the deal, Ms. Collins will sign a 75-year ground lease for the Tea Lane Farmstead, after which the town will sell the farmhouse, barn, garage, and two outbuildings to her for $1.

In exchange, Ms. Collins will agree to make certain renovations to the historic farmhouse. The lease allows her use of $100,000 in community preservation funds to make renovations and also allows her to own the value of those renovations.

Selectmen this week reviewed the design and added value of Ms. Collins’s plans, which call for a dormer to be added to the north side and for two large bushes to be removed from the front of the house facing Middle Road.

Plans also call for a gable roof to replace the existing shed roof over the mudroom. The mudroom door will be relocated to the northwest side of the house, and double windows will be installed on the two gable ends of the house.

Mr. Doty said he was optimistic that people will embrace the changes. “Years ago people wanted to see things just they way it is, but as soon as you start making changes like removing the bamboo and overgrown bushes I think they might consider that to be a great first step,” he said.

Town zoning administrator Chuck Hodgkinson said the cost of the renovations will be around $247,000, and the value added owned by Ms. Collins will be around $147,000 when the CPA funds are subtracted.

Ms. Collins said she plans on building a removable greenhouse on the portion of the property owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank. She noted she may not always live in the farmhouse, and that she has put a lot of thought into how future residents may react to the design.

“I am thinking about how it will be in the house in the future with the two open windows on the second floor, which might be two bedrooms. Having the future farmer in mind is really important,” she said.

“”We do hope you are there for 20 years,” Mr. Doty said.

“I hope she is there for 30 or 40 years,” replied chairman Jonathan Mayhew.

Selectmen then unanimously approved the design phase and the expense sheet for the Tea Lane farmhouse.

Selectmen also took up a number of personal issues, including the authorization of posting the vacancy to replace town accountant Emily Day, who submitted her letter of resignation to selectmen on December 10.

In her letter Ms. Day said very little about her decision to resign, stating only her resignation would go into effect January 4. “I thank you for the opportunity to serve the town and I wish you well in the future,” she wrote.

The position with a grade 9 pay range pays between $52,695 and $54,535. Applicants are required to be certified as a town accountant or to obtain certification within three years.

Town executive secretary Tim Carroll said three people have already expressed interest in the position, including one from the Island and two from off Island. Applications must be submitted by January 10, with interviews planned to commence on January 14, Mr. Carroll said.

Selectmen agreed to appoint Mr. Rossi as their representative to the search committee. The town treasurer and member of the human resources committee are also expected to sit on the committee.

Selectmen agreed to talk with Ms. Day for input about areas where the town can improve on managing their finances.

“People tend to be really honest on the way out,” Mr. Rossi said.