Budget reduced, Up-Island school committee says yes

— Janet Hefler

After many discussions and a delay of several weeks, the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee voted Monday night to approve a tentative total operating budget of $9,959,806 for fiscal year 2015 (FY15). The three member towns — Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury — would be assessed an estimated total of $9,831,089, which is an increase of 7.47 percent over the FY14 budget.

Committee chairman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury cast a yes vote to make it unanimous after committee members Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah, Michael Marcus of West Tisbury, and Robert Lionette of Chilmark voted in favor of the budget.

The committee’s vote to approve the budget followed a lengthy deliberation that led them to come up with a strategy to reduce the budget by about $86,000, based on suggestions from Mr. Lionette and school business administrator Amy Tierney.

The $86,000 will come from a one percent reduction in district expenses, and one percent reductions in the two site operating budgets for Chilmark School and West Tisbury School. The school committee instructed Chilmark head of school Susan Stevens and West Tisbury School principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt to go back over their budgets to determine lines where cuts could be made, and to present those for review and deliberation at the committee’s next meeting on February 10.

The revised budget total does not include a $50,000 reduction recommended by Ms. Tierney, and approved by the school committee Monday night, from the residential placement line, to reflect state Circuit Breaker funds already received and additional funds expected at the end of the school year. Residential placements are made in educational facilities off-Island for some special education students who require 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.

In a conversation with The Times shortly after the meeting ended, Ms. Tierney said she realized that she did not calculate the $50,000 reduction in the budget total that she gave the committee before its vote. The number will be revised when the committee votes to certify the budget next month, Ms. Tierney told The Times in a phone call Tuesday.

The UIRSD’s bylaws state that the district should certify its budget by the end of December. However, the budget process hit a roadblock when school committee members rejected the fourth draft version of the FY15 budget, with a bottom line of $10,056,088, at a meeting on December 16. Although the vote was 3 to 2 in favor of the budget, it failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority, or four votes in favor. Mr. Manter and Ms. Ackerman voted against it, and Mr. Marcus, Mr. Lionette, and Dan Cabot voted in favor of it.

The committee set another budget meeting on January 6, hoping to resolve the budget before a few members left on planned vacations. However, their decision-making was delayed yet again due to the absence of Ms. Ackerman, who said she had to work that morning and was out scalloping. The members agreed to postpone any action until this week’s meeting.

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