Regional high school FY16 budget public hearing next week

Many windows in Martha's Vineyard Regional High School have rotted sills and frames. — By Janet Hefler

Exterior doors with rotted frames and gaps where they meet the floor. Sagging, discolored ceiling tiles in most classrooms. Torn, threadbare carpets with permanent stains. Chipped floor tiles throughout the corridors. A cafeteria oven that no longer works.

Those were some of  building maintenance and repair issues observed by school committee budget subcommittee members and town finance committee representatives Wednesday morning during a tour of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). It proved to be a game-changer in the fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget meeting that followed.

The meeting was the last in a series in the budget process, which began in October. On Monday, November 24, MVRHS principal Gil Traverso Traverso will present the final draft version of the FY16 budget at a public hearing that starts at 7 pm in the performing arts center.

Mr. Traverso led yesterday’s hour-long building tour, which also included school administrators, superintendent of schools James Weiss, and some of his staff prior to the subcommittee’s budget meeting, run by chairman Susan Mercier, starting at 8:45 am.

“We were in the lobby of the performing arts center today; it’s probably the place I frequent most, and I looked at the ceiling for the first time and Gil was saying, look at that, holes, things are going to fall down,” Tisbury finance and advisory committee (FinCom) member Bruce Lewellyn said in discussion of the tour later in the meeting. “I’d never looked at that, so I’m assuming the entire Island could pile in and out of there several times and not be aware of the fact it’s really a Third World country.”

The budget nuts and bolts

The FY16 budget includes total operating expenses of $18,414,692, a decrease of $131,557 or 0.71 percent from FY15. Island towns, however, would pay total assessments estimated at $15,863,870, an increase of $594,462 or 3.89 percent, compared with FY15.

MVRHS accounts manager Mark Friedman noted that since the subcommittee’s last meeting on November 3, adjustments made to the draft FY16 budget included the addition of $32,118 to the transportation budget to cover cost increases for special education and off-Island transportation, $13,264 for hockey players’ ice time based on a proposed rate increase by Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena, $10,000 for vocational education machinery, and $19,428 for the high school’s portion of the superintendent’s shared services budget, pending the All-Island School Committee’s vote Thursday night.

The most recent budget version also includes $78,214 for a new intervention coordinator, approved by the school committee on November 3, to handle alternative educational services mandated by a new state law regarding discipline and attendance policies. Also, $50,860 was added to a line item for non-special education tutoring for students with mental and physical health issues, as well as discipline problems.

As he explained at a previous budget meeting, Mr. Friedman said one of the FY16 budget’s biggest challenges is that although the high school will decrease its debt service expense by $490,000 with its last payment on a bond for a building addition, it will also lose $881,000 in annual revenue it receives as reimbursement for the project from the state.

To help offset that loss of revenue next year and lower the resulting increase in town assessments, Mr. Friedman said he and school business administrator Amy Tierney recommended using $175,000 from expected excess and deficiency (E and D) funds. He said they are confident the E and D funds will be up this year from last year, when certified by the state, and that amount will be available for the offset.

Mr. Weiss assured the school committee that the use of the E and D funds would be used to soften the blow of the loss of the state funds in the first year and “not something we’re going to do on a regular basis.”

Group reactions

Several school committee members and FinCom representatives objected.

“I don’t like that idea at all,” high school committee chairman Colleen McAndrews of Tisbury said. “We just toured this building, and I’m thinking about what $175,000 could do here this year.”

If the school has an unexpected big expense come up next year, she added, “Where is that money going to come from?”

Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, a West Tisbury selectman and longtime school committee member, said he thinks all E and D funds should go back to the towns. By law the high school is allowed to keep an amount of the funds that is less than than five percent of the operating budget to use for unanticipated or emergency expenses.

“If we need to spend money to improve the building, I think we should ask for it and have public participation on how we spend their money,” Mr. Manter said.

“What I’ve seen by walking around this building is staggering,” Chilmark FinCom member James Malkin said. Noting that he once ran global businesses, he said he has never seen the amount of moisture damage and rot around windows and frames, doors and frames, carpeting, and skylights, other than in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Mr. Malkin said repairs and maintenance would likely require thousands of dollars, and perhaps millions, to be spent over time. He suggested prioritizing projects and presenting them to the Island towns as soon as possible.

“After the tour this morning, I would like to see a top ten list of things that realistically we can fix this year,” Ms. McAndrews said. “We can’t fix some things, such as the air system this year, but others we can do immediately. I’m in shock, too. It’s unacceptable. It’s not fair to the kids and teachers.”

Mr. Friedman said the high school has already begun to take steps to address its deferred maintenance, which dates back to budget constraints related to the economic downturn in 2008, by reintroducing a five-year capital planning process.

Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee representatives Maura McGroarty and Steve Auerbach also weighed in.

“I come from a town hard pressed for money,” Mr. Auerbach said. “I appreciate the gesture to put E and D money in to decrease our assessment, which would help us prevent having to ask voters for an override.”

Ms. McGroarty reminded everyone that every budget has a bottom line. “If you have 100 dollars and 20 dollars has to go into maintenance, that means only 80 dollars is available for everything else in your budget,” she said. “That’s what hits people who write the checks and go to town meeting. Unless you stay within the requirements of [Proposition] 2.5, you’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Mr. Manter suggested coming up with a five-year capital plan for the projects under discussion, which may require bonding, and then asking the towns for the money over a period of time.

The budget subcommittee came to the consensus that they would leave the $175,000 in E and D funds in the budget to offset the revenue loss, and instructed Mr. Friedman to look at possibly increasing the school’s maintenance budget by $175,000, as well.

Ms. Mercier reminded everyone about the budget public hearing Monday night and how important it is for not only the school committee members but also the Island community to attend. “Gil and Mark are working hard on the presentation, and we should be imploring people from the towns and on the high school committee to get the word out and get people there,” she said.

After the public hearing, the MVRHS school committee is scheduled to discuss and vote on the FY16 budget at a meeting on December 1.