Up-Island school committee rejects school budget

West Tisbury School — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee rejected a $10,056,088 draft fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget following a public hearing Monday. The proposed spending plan was 8.2 percent more expensive than the FY14 budget. Although the vote was 3-2 in favor, approval required a two-thirds majority, or four votes, for approval.

During lengthy debate prior to the vote, the committee agreed to eliminate a proposed district secretarial position, reducing the bottom line to $10,056,088, still an 8.2 percent increase over the $9,293,160 FY14 budget.

The rejected budget also included assessments to the district’s three member towns — Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury — that totaled $9,927,371, an increase of $779,960 or about 8.53 percent over last year’s, pending verification, according to school business administrator Amy Tierney.

Escalating costs for special education are the driving factor in the district’s budget increases, both at the district level and for its portion of the superintendent’s office/shared services budget, which primarily supports special education, as well as other programs provided to students Island-wide in five school districts. Occupational, physical, and vision therapies, as well as psychological evaluations, are among the special education services.

The school committee agreed they need to sharpen their pencils and return for more discussion before they meet again on January 3, with a possible vote scheduled for January 27.

Concern about taxpayers

“We’ve got them packed in here as usual,” school committee chairman Jeffrey “Skip” Manter of West Tisbury remarked wryly, as he opened the public hearing with only two representatives from the district’s member towns in attendance. Town accountant Bruce Stone and finance committee (FinCom) member Greg Orcutt, both from West Tisbury, expressed concerns about how the school budget increases would affect taxpayers.

Mr. Stone said that based on where the proposed budget stood last month, if all other budget items in West Tisbury remained the same, the school budget increase would result in a 5.8 percent increase in the town’s tax levy.

“I personally applaud the efforts and time the school committee and school administrators have taken to create this budget, but we are really alarmed,” Mr. Orcutt said. “We are extremely concerned, not only over the percentage of the budget increase, but also the real dollar increase. It’s a fine product you put out, but the cost is really getting to the point where it’s difficult for people on fixed income, for people who are not doing so well in this economy, and this is going to be a very bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow.”

Mr. Orcutt said since some of the programs are state-mandated, it seems to him that the state should be responsible for helping towns, especially those with small communities, to fund them.

School committee member Dan Cabot of West Tisbury said that he shares Mr. Orcutt’s concern about the effect of school budget increases on taxpayers, and considers the state’s unfunded mandates as “taxation without representation.” Nonetheless, he added, “We’re almost at the point when it comes to the shared services budget we have to say sorry, we’ve got to deal with the hand we’re dealt.”

Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah said the committee should talk again about reducing some of the budget line items. “You really have to be realistic about what we can do,” she said. “I feel as if we have so much, and we can do better with what we have.”

Possible reductions

Mr. Manter said he looked over the budget very carefully and figured out how to reduce it by $400,000. Among his recommendations, he suggested requesting funds for window replacement at West Tisbury School and renovations at Chilmark School in individual warrant articles for the member towns.

“I don’t like those expenses becoming part of the base that next year’s budget will be built on,” he said.

Mr. Manter also revisited one of his yearly topics at budget time, eliminating the Chilmark School head of school position, which he said West Tisbury School administrators could handle. “If Chilmark is that fond of that position, why not have a warrant article and pay for it themselves?” he said. “There’s no reason why other two towns should have to pay for what that town wants.”

Mr. Manter also recommended eliminating the Spanish program. Currently, teacher Theresa Holmes teaches Spanish in grades 6-8 at West Tisbury School and in four classrooms at Chilmark School two half-days a week. West Tisbury Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt has proposed eliminating Spanish instruction in the lower grades at both schools next year and to make it a full academic program in grades 7 and 8, an idea that most of the committee members favor.

As he did at last month’s school committee meeting, Michael Marcus of West Tisbury said he would prefer that the funds used for Spanish were spent on an enrichment program, and math in particular. He made a motion to cut the Spanish program, which was defeated 3-2.

Although the UIRSD’s bylaws state that the district should certify its budget by the end of December, Mr. Manter said there is no penalty for missing the deadline. Mr. Cabot made the motion to approve the latest version of the budget, with amendments as made, which failed to achieve a two-thirds majority.

Under the terms of UIRSD’s regional agreement, the budget is divided into four parts — superintendent’s office/shared services costs, school committee (district) costs, separate site operating budgets for the two schools, and building debt.

Chilmark School’s FY15 proposed operating budget is $1,221,933, an increase of 7.08 percent over FY14, and West Tisbury School’s is $5,995,877, an increase of 7.23 percent. Chilmark and West Tisbury each pay 80 percent of the building debt for their town’s schools.The UIRSD pays for its own transportation and for health insurance, which is not included in other Island school district budgets.

Special education increases

Last month the All-Island School Committee (AISC) approved superintendent of schools James Weiss’s FY15 budget of $5,401,445, an increase of $961,870 or 21.7 percent from FY14 totals. In presenting his budget to the AISC in October, Mr. Weiss said the bulk of the increase would go to expand programs and provide additional services for an influx of special education students anticipated next year, as mandated but unfunded by the State.

The shared services costs are divided among MVPS elementary school districts in the towns of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, the UIRSD, and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District (MVRHS).

MVRHS pays 20 percent of the cost of the shared services and programs it uses. The UIRSD and town elementary school districts pay a percentage based on enrollment, which means that their cost shares may fluctuate from year to year.

Based on that formula, the UIRSD’s portion of the superintendent’s shared services budget is up by $257,939, a 28.24 percent increase over last year, according to Ms. Tierney. The district will also be required to pay $198,000 for residential care for a student that must live in an educational facility off Island in order to receive specialty services and programs.