Collaboration is key to cost savings, says outgoing superintendent

James Weiss predicts cost pressures will only grow in the future.

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On behalf of the Oak Bluff School community, school committee member Kris O'Brien, right, presented superintendent of schools James Weiss with a gift basket of beach-related items to enjoy in his upcoming retirement, following his speech last week at a meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters. — Photo by Janet Hefler

From buying toilet paper in bulk to pooling people resources, Superintendent of Schools James Weiss advocates more collaboration and shared responsibilities between Martha’s Vineyard schools to help offset growing educational costs. Mr. Weiss draws a clear distinction, however, when it comes to the “R” word.

“Over the years, there has been much talk about regionalization; it would be better, it would save money, there would be less overhead, et cetera,” Mr. Weiss said at a meeting held at Oak Bluffs School last week. “But schools are very personal institutions, personal to the local community and its culture. It’s so personal that there has really not been a movement on this Island in the direction of regionalization.”

A regional system would result in a loss of control or power for individual communities and would require a lot of give and take, Mr. Weiss added. “And while I agree that a regional system could save us money, I have to say that I don’t see that happening.”

Mr. Weiss shared his thoughts about the future of Martha’s Vineyard schools, and offered a blueprint for making improvements and achieving efficiencies and financial savings, in the second of five meetings sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV).

“Our final goal is to set up the new leadership in education on the Island with a core group of parents who would be supportive of what’s happening in education and what’s going forward,” LWV member and meeting moderator Judy Crawford said.

The audience of about 25 people who attended the May 7 Oak Bluffs meeting included a mix of teachers, parents, school board and School Advisory Committee members, town finance and advisory committee members, and administrators. Assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Matt D’Andrea, who will take the reins as new superintendent on July 1, and Oak Bluffs Principal Richie Smith, who will move into Mr. D’Andrea’s job, were among them.

No such thing as MVPS

“In my 46-year career as an educator, including 26 years as a school superintendent, this is clearly the best job I have ever had,” Mr. Weiss said at the start of his 45-minute speech. “It’s because Martha’s Vineyard is a special place, special in large part because of its people, and education is basically a people business. We have about 550 employees; we work with over 2,100 students. We’re fortunate to have six excellent schools — not perfect — but excellent just the same.”

As superintendent for the past decade, Mr. Weiss has overseen six Island schools and participated in 60 school budget processes. The superintendent’s shared-services budget, and five separate school budgets, add up to about $50 million to educate 2,100 students, he said.

Although the Island schools are commonly referred to as the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools, Mr. Weiss said there actually is no such entity.

“What we have is superintendency’s union number 19, which includes the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury school districts, and two regional school districts, one for the up-Island towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, and one for the Island-wide high school — five separate political entities,” he pointed out. “They come together once in awhile to hire and fire the superintendent, and develop a budget for our office.”

Mr. Weiss said in terms of finances, the superintendent’s office is a unique entity that operates a collaborative of its own, the shared-services program, which includes special education services as well as other programs provided to students Island-wide.

The pluses and minuses

Mr. Weiss praised the schools for their excellent teachers, high-performing students, wide-ranging curriculum and extracurricular activities, and vocational and special education programs.

“Each school continues to reflect its local community, holding true to the traditions that make it truly a special place,” he said.

In regard to current issues and problems, Mr. Weiss said with the exception of Edgartown School, buildings have not been well maintained. Although he has argued strongly over the past several years for adding a director of facilities management to the superintendent’s staff, the position did not survive budget cuts, and school buildings continue to suffer from a lack of maintenance.

“We don’t have a plan, a level of expertise, to handle all these issues,” Mr. Weiss said. “And as I always remind school principals, they are educational leaders first and building managers second.”

Mr. Weiss said another issue for him is that Island schools can be slow to realize safety issues, and that the Up-Island school district still lacks either a part-time or full-time school resource officer. He also is concerned that the regional high school is lagging behind some schools on the Cape by not expanding its world language program to include Mandarin, Russian, or Eastern European languages.

“As an aside, I want to go on record to say that Common Core and Massachusetts standards are extremely important, because no longer are our students just competing with kids in other states, they’re now competing with students internationally,” Mr. Weiss said. “However, in my own opinion, we do too much testing. We need to decide on that going forward. Some of it is not our choice, it’s the state’s choice, but there is too much testing in general.”

Collaboration vs. regionalization

Mr. Weiss said the idea of shared responsibilities and collaboration offers an option besides regionalization to address many of the issues and problems the schools face.

“You don’t have to do everything together in the same way, but where you can agree to do things together and save some money, you get the benefit both financially and educationally,” he said. “We need to work together more often, not just in crisis.”

For example, Mr. Weiss said, Edgartown, the Up-Island Regional School District, and the regional high school district combined their three school bus systems into one run by the high school, which saved more than $1 million in the first year. As another example, Mr. Weiss pointed to the Bridge Program, a collaborative special education program in the superintendent’s shared-services budget that serves students on the autism spectrum from towns Island-wide, sparing individual school districts the cost of staffing and running their own programs.

“At the Cape Cod Collaborative, it would cost $46,000 per student a year, and we do the same thing here for about $43,000 this year,” Mr. Weiss said. “And our kids don’t have to go over on a boat.”

Collaboration could work with something as simple as buying toilet paper, he said. Currently every school buys its own type and holders. If all the schools bought the same paper in bulk, the company would drop-ship it once, plus provide the holders or dispensers and come to the Island to install them, Mr. Weiss said.

Oak Bluffs FinCom member Steve Auerbach asked Mr. Weiss to clarify the distinction between collaboration and regionalization.

“Regionalization is when you’re forced to do things as one entity, and things get assessed,” Mr. Weiss said. “Collaboration and shared responsibilities for me means, you have a choice to make on a given issue. You can choose to share buses, toilet paper, whatever works for you and your community, rather than saying everyone has to do this.”

What lies ahead

Mr. Weiss said he believes Mr. D’Andrea and Mr. Smith “represent a wonderful leadership team for the Martha’s Vineyard schools.” He also warned them of some challenges they will face.

“The cost of education will continue to grow,” Mr. Weiss said “They have to learn to work with FinComs, selectmen, and voters in every town so that budgets don’t become a problem. And come November, they will have to do negotiations with five bargaining units.”

Mr. Weiss said they also will likely have struggles recruiting teachers and other educational professionals, and that state and federal mandates are not going to get any easier. Another challenge will be the need for universal preschool, as well as the need to provide quality programming for all students, he added.

“This will mean over the years they’re going to have to do more and more with less and less, and that’s a struggle,” Mr. Weiss said. “Collaborative work, shared responsibilities will help them get there. It is my hope you’ll support them.”

At the conclusion of his speech, the audience broke into three groups to discuss some possible shared responsibilities for Island schools. Suggestions included technical infrastructure and information technology; enrichment programs; and custodial and facility maintenance, painting and plumbing.

After a brief discussion of the groups’ ideas, Oak Bluffs School Committee member Kris O’Brien presented Mr. Weiss with a basket filled with beach-related items as a parting gift.

“You have held us together for a decade with your guidance, your leadership, your expertise and knowledge, and your vision, and mostly your care,” Ms. O’Brien said. “Thank you from all of us here for all those years, and good luck in your retirement.”

Mr. Weiss’s remaining speeches are scheduled on May 19 at the Edgartown School cafeteria, May 21 at the West Tisbury School cafeteria, and June 9 at the Chilmark Community Center. The LWV plans to continue to conduct a series of forums throughout this year and into 2016 with goals to inform Islanders about the current status of education management and organization, to encourage a dialogue in the community about ways to enhance school efficiencies and effectiveness, and to support Mr. D’Andrea as he begins work as the new superintendent.

For more information, contact a local school parent-teacher organization chairman, or LWV member Lolly Hand at 508-687-9955.