Up-Island school district committee grapples with budget

Despite their concern over budget increases, committee members were unable to come to grips with the $10.6 million budget.

The Up-Island Regional District School Committee met Monday night but did not make any changes to the draft FY17 budget. — Photo by Cathryn McCann

The Up-Island school district committee met Monday night and discussed at length a number of ways they might shrink the overall fiscal year 2017 (FY17) budget increase, but by the end of the night they were unable to come up with any significant cost savings in the $10.6 million spending plan.

The budget, which includes $419,072 worth of offsets, or outstanding monies that can go toward budget costs, is up 3.34 percent over FY16, which ends on June 30, 2016. Without the offsets, the total budget is $11.1 million, a 7.39 percent increase over last year. As a result, total town assessments will increase by 4.24 percent, or $427,733.

Aquinnah will see an increase of $95,260, from $895,626. Chilmark’s assessment will rise by $25,733, from $2.3 million, and West Tisbury will watch its share rise by $306,738, from $6.8 million.

“I think a budget that’s up 7.3 percent is just not acceptable,” selectman and committee member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury said. “It’s a lot of money and it compounds — it will be the base for next year. These are numbers that I honestly don’t think I could present to the satisfaction of the community.”

The percentage increase is largely due to salary-step and benefit increases, but also includes costs to expand the lunch program, add a breakfast program, provide a 2 percent cost of living increase, and move a West Tisbury English and language arts (ELA) enrichment position from part-time to full-time.

The committee discussed keeping the ELA position at part-time, which would hold the town assessment increase to 3.55 percent.

Aquinnah representative Theresa Manning said that sometimes it’s necessary to look beyond the budget numbers.

“The [ELA position] cost may look like it’s pushing our budgets over, but it may also offer our children in our school district better opportunities for learning,” she said. “I feel like that’s important to focus on. We don’t do that enough in this committee.”

“We have to present a budget that the town will pass, and we failed to do that last year,” Mr. Manter countered. “It put us into a crisis mode, so we’re trying to do it a little differently this year.”

Kate DeVane of West Tisbury suggested looking at other employee positions. “I think a per-employee cost might be an interesting thing to look at, based on what their job description is and how many students they serve,” she said.

West Tisbury School Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt reminded the committee that a number of line items had already been cut.

“I presented a series of things that I’ve already cut,” she said. “I cut the health teacher out, I made cuts to the science curriculum, we cut Island Grown Schools out. We did cut things out.”

Food for thought

The committee questioned if the lunch and breakfast program expansions are necessary; they include raising the head cook’s hours to 8 hours a day, with a corresponding salary increase, and adding a new part-time position worth about $16,000.

School officials recently sent a survey to Chilmark and West Tisbury school parents and faculty to gauge the interest in an expanded program. At the West Tisbury School, 94.5 percent of responding parents said their student currently buys lunch at the school, and 57.5 percent said their student buys it every day of the school week. Many parents were willing to see the lunch price raised to $3, but that acceptance dropped off as the proposed price was raised to $3.50. Of those, 39.8 percent of responding parents said they would have their child participate in a school breakfast program. Similar numbers were echoed in the Chilmark School survey.

“We’re looking at an incredible growth rate in participation in the program,” committee chairman Robert Lionette of Chilmark said. “The buy-in continues to increase, and we have a number of families participating in the free and reduced program. Because of that, I’m going to continue to support it.”

“I’m a huge supporter of adding the breakfast program,” Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said. “There are a lot of students who could use a healthy breakfast in the morning who would qualify for a free or a significantly reduced-price breakfast, and start their day on the right foot.”

She recommended looking into offsetting some of the costs by utilizing the revolving fund, an account that can finance an organization’s continuing operations without any fiscal year limitation, by eventually repaying money used from the account.

“The revolving account is made for the school lunch program to be a sustainable system,” school business administrator Amy Tierney said. “The money that comes in should pay for the food and labor, and it does not work that way here.”

At the request of Mr. Lionette, Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt agreed to present a proposal of what utilizing the revolving fund would look like for the next committee meeting.

West Tisbury representative Michael Marcus brought up the contentious debate held at the All-Island School Committee meeting on Dec. 15, regarding the shared services budget allocation formula. In essence, towns and the up-Island district are fiscally responsible for school-choice students who attend their schools, regardless of the student’s home address. The formula was based on the view that the costs average out over a period of several years.

The up-Island school district, which received 45 school-choice students this year, saw the biggest increase based on the current formula. If the formula was adjusted to reflect costs from only students in the district, the total up-Island assessment would decrease by about $165,000. The All-Island School Committee will hold a task force meeting on Jan. 13 to discuss the formula.

“I think that this [school-choice formula] is perhaps one of the biggest areas that we can significantly influence our budget,” Mr. Marcus said. “I think we have a good chance at making effective change sooner rather than later. That potentially represents a massive number in our budget, and could make things a lot easier for us.”

Superintendent of Public Schools Matt D’Andrea said the task force meeting is necessary for making a decision.

“I think both sides of the issue have some very good points, and it’s going to have to be a decision that’s made as a group,” he said. “It’s a debate and conversation that needs to happen, and everyone needs to be informed, and understand effectively the decision that they’re making.”

Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said the school-choice numbers could see significant changes in the coming years. She said almost half of the West Tisbury school-choice students are in the sixth through eighth grade, because it’s easier to switch and rotate students in those grades.

“So actually, numbers could fluctuate pretty significantly even in the next two budget cycles because of the number of kids in the sixth through eighth grade,” she said.

Ultimately, the committee did not vote to make any changes to the budget. Their next meeting, including a public hearing on the budget, is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 25.