Up-Island school committee once again punts budget decision

— File photo by Janet Hefler

After convening a special meeting Monday morning to reconsider its $10 million fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget,the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee, short one member, postponed any action until it meets again later this month, or in February.

On December 16, the school committee rejected a fourth draft version of the school budget with a bottom line of $10,056,088. At Monday’s meeting held in the West Tisbury School library, school business administrator Amy Tierney handed out a revised draft budget pared down to $10,045,806.

But committee decision making was hampered by the absence at the morning meeting of a key member, Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah, who had pushed for the budget discussion, but was out scalloping.

The fifth draft version reflected the committee vote last month to eliminate a regional secretarial position and associated costs for salary, benefits and payroll obligations. Ms. Tierney said she had reviewed the entire budget again and made adjustments on benefits to reflect more recent information. With the latest revisions the FY15 budget reflects an 8.09 percent increase over the FY14 budget.

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 Superintendent James Weiss’s office and shared services budget, which primarily supports special education, as well as other programs provided to students Island-wide in five school districts.

Ms. Tierney suggested that the district consider reducing the residential placement line item by $50,000, to reflect state funds already received and additional funds expected at the end of the school year. Some special education students live in educational facilities off Island where they receive services and programs unavailable on Martha’s Vineyard. Those costs are included in the budget of the school district in which a student lives, not in the superintendent’s shared services budget. The school committee agreed the line item reduction was a good idea, but did not vote on it.

Bushels win out over budget

Last month, the committee voted 3-2 in favor of the draft budget. However, approval required a two-thirds majority, or four votes in favor. Committee member Roxanne Ackerman and committee chairman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of Aquinnah voted no. Members Dan Cabot of West Tisbury, Michael Marcus of West Tisbury, and Robert Lionette of Chilmark voted in favor.

At the December meeting, at Ms. Ackerman’s suggestion, the committee agreed to schedule another meeting to discuss the budget prior to their next regularly scheduled meeting on January 27. Since two members would be on vacation, it took a lot of juggling to find a date to accommodate all the members.

At Monday’s meeting, however, Mr. Cabot told the committee that Ms. Ackerman, who harvests scallops commercially, had called him at 7 am to say she would not be there because she had to work.

“I mentioned to her this might be the last chance we’d have to pass a budget before February because we won’t have a full set of people over the next two weeks and over the last two weeks of the month, and she said she couldn’t help that,” Mr. Cabot said.

“At the last meeting she made a couple of suggestions which I found not wise, but I think we should probably go on the record one way or another about them,” he added.

Mr. Cabot said he would make two motions, based on Ms. Ackerman’s suggestions, and if they were seconded, he would vote against both. A motion that the UIRSD refuse to pay all or part of its assessment of the superintendent’s shared services budget, and subtract it from the district budget received a second for the purpose of discussion. There was no discussion and the committee voted unanimously against it.

Mr. Cabot’s second motion, also based on Ms. Ackerman’s recommendation, was that the UIRSD school committee request that the All-Island School Committee (AISC) revisit the superintendent’s shared services budget with an eye to reducing it. In the discussion that followed Mr. Cabot pointed out that the only programs the AISC has control over in the shared services budget were relatively low in cost, and their elimination would not significantly reduce the assessment.

Mr. Manter disagreed, saying that small savings here and there in the budget could add up to significant dollars overall. He suggested it would be better to ask the AISC to make some specific reductions in the superintendent’s budget, rather than reconsidering it overall. He voted in favor of the motion. The other three committee members against it.

No budget – then what?

Although the UIRSD’s bylaws state that the district should certify its budget by the end of December, there is no penalty for missing the deadline, according to Mr. Manter. Mr. Cabot asked what would happen if the committee never gets four votes of approval for the budget.

Mr. Weiss said the commissioner of education would then determine a budget for the district based on its FY14 budget, with increases figured in for contractual agreements, assessments, and expenses such as residential placements. It would not include specifics, such as items the school committee added in the FY15 budget, including a new fifth-grade teacher at West Tisbury School, a math enrichment teacher and assistants, Mr. Weiss said.

Mr. Manter complained that the committee had spent little time reviewing the budget as a whole, and criticized his fellow committee members for approving a line item budget they received only last month, without reviewing it in detail. He asked several questions about specific line items, including costs for substitute and summer school teachers, office equipment maintenance, and water testing at Chilmark School.

His comment about the committee’s budget review process got a rise out of Sharon Estrella, a West Tisbury FinCom member in attendance. To start, Ms. Estrella questioned the benefits of West Tisbury being part of a regional school district and said she thought the town would be better off without it.

“We have lost total control of the town of West Tisbury’s school,” she said. “It offends me you guys haven’t looked at your budget line by line. Nobody even looks at it? That’s very disturbing. The FinCom’s not going to be happy.”

Mr. Lionette objected to her accusation. He said that the members did look at line items and that both West Tisbury and Chilmark School administrators have done a great job in keeping most of them level-funded or below budget, with the majority of increases due to contractual obligations.

Mr. Cabot reminded Ms. Estrella that West Tisbury FinCom member Greg Orcutt had attended almost every budget meeting for the last two years, and complimented the school committee on a job well done last month.

“But his parting statement was that he didn’t think this budget would fly,” Ms. Estrella countered. “I think you guys have a hard job ahead of you.”

Mr. Marcus told her she was entitled to her opinion. “I think the town has spoken resoundingly in favor of what we do here, year after year,” he said. “And I think what we do here is in accordance with a majority of the taxpayers. I’m not here to please the FinCom or the selectmen. I’m here because I believe in providing excellence in education for the kids. And there are things we have to do that cost money.”

The school committee’s next meeting is at 5 pm on January 27 at the Chilmark School. Mr. Marcus asked if they could have another meeting sometime in the next two weeks with Ms. Ackerman present, which Mr. Weiss said he would arrange.