School committee approves $5.7 million superintendent’s budget

After an almost 90-minute debate that included some local versus regional arguments, the All-Island School Committee (AISC) voted 11-3 at a meeting on November 20 to approve Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) superintendent James Weiss’s proposed $5,776,254 fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget. That figure represents an increase of $399,562 or 7.43 percent over FY15.

The superintendent traditionally leads the way in the school budget process. The superintendent’s budget includes expenses not only for his office but also shared services, which primarily support special education, as well as other programs provided to students in five school districts Island-wide. Occupational, physical, and vision therapies, as well as psychological evaluations, are among the special education services. Each of the Island towns pays a proportional share of the superintendent’s shared services budget in addition to school assessments based on each town’s pupil census.

“This budget that I’m presenting to you this evening is made with a lot of consultation with folks on our staff, looking at enrollments, and talking to people in the early education community, ” Mr. Weiss said at last Thursday’s meeting. ”And we’ve made some adjustments that we feel we can live with and offer you a fiscally prudent budget.”

The final budget balances school committee requests and includes contractual and non-contractual salary increases. For example, the English Language Learners (ELL) director’s job was increased to full time on the request of the school committee.

Mr. Weiss was able to shave some personnel costs from the Bridge Program, located at Edgartown School, which serves students with autism spectrum disorders and communication and social interaction disorders, and Project Headway, which provides preschool special education services in two classes housed at West Tisbury School. The preschool classes combine special education students and regular education students designated as “peer models.”

Divisive debate

Up-Island Regional School District school committee chairman Michael Marcus of West Tisbury and fellow committee members Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury and Robert Lionette of Chilmark, who all raised numerous questions, voted against the budget.

“On principle, I can’t support this budget,” Mr. Lionette said. “Since our last meeting, I’ve been trying to poll a lot of different stakeholders, and found a nearly uniform consensus, that the shared services department is administratively top-heavy.”

To start, Mr. Lionette questioned the need for a full-time ELL director. Oak Bluffs School principal Richie Smith noted that there are currently 177 ELL students in Island schools, compared to 77 in 2012, and that state has also increased its mandates for ELL services significantly.

Mr. Marcus turned the discussion into a local versus regional debate by asking for a breakdown of how many ELL students attend each school. Mr. Weiss said the students are in schools across the Island, with the majority in kindergarten and first and second grades. He estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of the up-Island schools’ enrollments are ELL students.

“From our selfish perspective up-Island, we don’t have the same need,” Mr. Marcus said. “I’m not in favor of increasing this; I’m actually in favor of decreasing it or shifting it away from the all-Island [shared services] budget.”

Lisa Reagan of Oak Bluffs pointed out that under the regional agreement for the school bus transportation system run by the high school, Oak Bluffs pays the same per run cost, even though its students’ trips are shorter than those for up-Island students.

“I’m totally in favor of paying for your trips and my trips, and hope you would pay for my ELL students,” she told Mr. Marcus. “it would be nice to get along, and it seems like an even wash.”

Mr. Weiss said he doesn’t like to see the shared services program budget go up, either, and also pointed out that if each school district had to duplicate the services now provided regionally, the cost would be much greater.

“I think we have to remember that even though we’re separate districts, we all send our kids to the high school,” MVRHS school committee chairman Colleen McAndews of Oak Bluffs said. “It’s not beneficial to get into situations where feelings get hurt and where we’re not thinking about the whole.“

“At the end of the day, this budget is affecting all of our districts’ budgets,” Mr. Lionette said. “I would love to look at some of the big ticket items in here and the organization, such as Project Headway, Bridge, and some of other programs Dr. Weiss has started.”

Mr. Lionette said that attacking a budget increase is not an attack on the quality of services. “I’m not comfortable that every year we keep pushing it up,” he said. “The effect this is having on individual town assessments is untenable.”

Facilities manager revisited

Ms. McAndrews sparked another major discussion with a recommendation to

add $89,000 to the superintendent’s budget for a new Island-wide facilities manager. Ms. McAndrews said she and the other committee members went on a tour of the high school last week and saw maintenance and repair issues that opened their eyes to the need for someone who would oversee facilities management not only in the high school, but all Island schools.

Although the additional cost would bring the budget’s increase to 9.1 percent, Ms. McAndrews said it was important.

Mr. Weiss proposed adding an Island-wide facilities manager to the superintendent’s staff about six years ago, but that request fell victim to budget constraints that year and in subsequent years. Last year, the AISC agreed to include $25,000 to hire a consultant to conduct a study of facilities management in schools Island-wide and make recommendations for improvements.

Mr. Weiss hired a consultant, Kevin Segalla, a custodial supervisor for the town of Quincy’s school department, who has visited the Island schools and will provide a report and his recommendations on December 2.

Kate DeVane, a newly elected UIRSD member from West Tisbury, cautioned the committee against adding a new full-time position, which she said would add not only the salary cost but also benefits and step increases for years to come.

“I’m painfully aware of the need for a facilities manager,” Kris O’Brien of Edgartown said. “However, it’s not only going to be a salary increase; once people put on the table what needs to be done, that all has to be paid for. Where’s that money going to come from?”

Mr. Marcus said he thought each school district should handle its own building problems locally, and “not lard it into the all-Island budget.”

Mr. Lionette suggested that the committee should wait for the consultant’s report before making any decision, to see if a full-time facilities manager would be necessary.

A motion to add the facilities manager position failed. A motion to add another $25,000 to the budget to continue with the consultant was approved 9 to 5.