Oak Bluffs FinCom objects to hike in school assessment

School officials said several factors could still affect the town’s final school tab.

Extended employee sick leave has put a strain on the high school budget. – File photo by Michael Cummo

The Oak Bluff’s finance committee (FinCom) has appealed to school officials to cut costs in order to mitigate the pressure on Oak Bluffs town finances. The focus of the budget minders’ consternation is a 13.5 percent hike in the regional high school assessment, from $4,351,785 to $4,933,176.

In a letter dated Dec. 29, addressed to Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent of Schools James Weiss, Steven Auerbach, FinCom chairman, said, “While this board strongly supports our educational mission, the level of the proposed estimate is simply more money than the town has in revenues at this time.”

Mr. Auerbach said the town absorbed a 15 percent increase by passing a $600,000 Proposition 2.5 override last year. “Having participated in the high school budget review process,” he said, “we were nonetheless surprised to receive the draft assessment, which would require an additional growth of $581,000, or 13.5 percent, in the Oak Bluffs share of the high school budget.”

Mr. Auerbach said the committee understood the increase was related to an increase in the number of students, but he cited several additional factors: “We are well aware that increasing state mandates without funding make it difficult to keep educational costs within the 2.5 percent guidelines … However, it is simply not sustainable to ask for an override every year.”

The FinCom asked school leaders to find nonclassroom areas in which to cut $131,000, and lower the assessment hike to a manageable $450,000.

At a meeting last Monday of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Committee, Mr. Weiss said that the budget was a work in progress and that two major items not yet finalized, employee health care costs and the new governor’s budget, could affect assessment figures.

Committee members also pointed to constant communication with the FinCom throughout the budget process.

Mr. Auerbach, who attended the Monday meeting, said, “Our main point is that we simply do not have enough revenue to sustain this budget.”

He said that the town was “handcuffed by Proposition 2.5 as well as the fact that more students have moved to Oak Bluffs.” This shift in student population has led to responsibility for an increased portion of the overall education budget, especially when combined with a relatively lower total valuation of real estate compared with other towns, he said.

In play

In a follow-up phone interview with The Times, Mr. Weiss said that he expects the health budget number to be finalized by mid-January. The school district belongs to the Cape Cod Health Care Group, a collaborative that searches out the best health insurance pricing for its members’ employees. Over the past several years, the organization has provided Martha’s Vineyard schools with significant savings on policy premiums. “The school district receives a preliminary quote from the collaborative early in the budget process, and typically, when the final amount has been calculated, we have paid less,” he said.

Cape Cod Health Care also has an overage account, which they accumulate and have used to further reduce the final bill when possible.  “I am hopeful that this will happen again in 2015,” he said.

A second factor, the governor’s budget, will also affect Island town assessments. Once Governor Baker’s budget is completed, school districts across the state will know how much state aid they can count on, and then structure final assessments. That information is expected in February, a month later than usual.

Numbers game

Monday night, Kris O’Brien, a representative of the Oak Bluffs school committee, voiced an opinion that was shared by several other members. “This is a very uncomfortable position to be in, as a school committee member and resident of Oak Bluffs,” she said. “As a taxpayer, I understand the issues facing the town. But as a school committee member, I really thought that the information we shared in so many meetings with all the towns, including Oak Bluffs, would help us to avoid this kind of situation.”

Committee members agreed that there had been significant dialogue as well as participation by both FinCom and school committee members in one another’s meetings. The difficulty and frustration was related to shifts in population that make planning difficult and changes in assessed real estate valuations for each of the towns.

Abe Seiman, a member of the FinCom and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, described the challenges faced in the budget process that are caused by unfunded mandates.  “A big part of the problem has been when the state legislature passes a law but doesn’t bother to give us any money to implement it,” he said.

At the end of a lengthy discussion, the committee unanimously approved a motion to accept the advice of Mr. Weiss and wait for final numbers before making changes or discussing specific budget-relief measures.

At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Weiss said that once health care costs and state aid amounts are finalized, he hopes there will also be additional opportunities “to manage the budget in order to soften the blow for Oak Bluffs and other jurisdictions.”  He concluded, “I would urge caution until the final numbers are known.”

In other business

High school principal Gil Traverso said that midterm exams, known as “common assessments,” begin Tuesday, Jan. 20, and end Friday, Jan. 23.

Mr. Traverso also said that a school lockdown drill had been successfully completed prior to the winter vacation. And he said that the faculty had discussed the rollout of a new TIP program at a recent meeting. With TIP, if students feel they have witnessed bullying or another student experiencing a crisis of any kind, they can quickly send an anonymous text message to a selected group of teachers or to Sergeant Mike Marchand, the high school resource officer.

In his report, Superintendent Weiss outlined several consultant recommendations regarding building maintenance, designed to highlight and fix problems with the physical plant as soon as possible in order to avoid a backlog of issues leading to more expensive repairs. The recommendations included better scheduling of ongoing maintenance, developing recommended techniques for common issues, and more training of the custodial staff. The consultant concluded that there is an opportunity to reduce long-term facilities maintenance costs by better managing the Vineyard schools’ custodial services.

The final agenda item was a brief progress report on the proposed new superintendent’s building. After discussion, the committee voted unanimously to move forward with a contract for the schematic portion of the design. The proposed new building would be built adjacent to the high school football field, and replace the current one in Vineyard Haven, which was originally a church built in the 1920s, and which has no handicapped access and very limited storage.