AISC makes progress with school choice, shared-services budget

The All-Island School Committee discussed an Up-Island proposal for school choice, and reviewed the first draft of FY18 shared-services budget.

MVRHS committee discussed ways to address substance use among adolescents on Monday night. -Michael Cummo

The All-Island School Committee (AISC) met last Thursday to discuss the fiscal year 2018 (FY18) shared-services budget, and an Up-Island Regional School District proposal to change the funding formula for the school-choice program, a flash point last school year. The AISC also unanimously approved a request from Assistant Superintendent of Schools Richie Smith to move three of his contractual benefits to his professional-development line, to help him cover tuition costs for a doctoral program he recently was accepted at in Virginia.

AISC chairman Colleen McAndrews began the meeting by reminding the committee that although it was made up of 14 members, all with different perspectives and interests, the broader purpose was to improve student achievement on the Island.

“We have different interests. We have different philosophical viewpoints. We have different skills. We have different communication styles,” Ms. McAndrews said. “And we have to remember that we all need to work together, especially at the all-Island level, to achieve our overarching mission, which is continuous improvement in student achievement. That’s what we’re all here for.”

Shared-services budget

Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea presented the first draft of the $6.1 million FY18 shared-services proposed budget, which increased by 2.5 percent, or roughly $149,000.

Almost 90 percent of the budget included contractual benefits, payroll obligations, longevity, and other contractual costs. There was a 12 percent increase in health benefits, and a 5 percent increase in dental benefits, for all employees.

“This budget is mostly people,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

The budget encompasses three general areas: the superintendent’s office (superintendent, secretaries, business administrator, assistant superintendent, curriculum department, director of student services); shared programs (Bridge, Project Headway, and social skills); and other direct services (physical and occupational therapy, Strings program, speech and language department).

Up-Island proposal

Last school year, Up-Island Regional School District committee members wrangled over and ultimately approved the school-choice formula. At issue was the requirement that towns pay for educating the students in their schools, whether the student lives in that town or not. The formula was based on the view that the costs average out over a period of several years.

In 2015–16, the up-Island district accepted 57 students, which was more than any other individual Island elementary school. State funding worth $5,000 follows the student to whichever school district he or she chooses, with additional funding if the student requires special education services.

At the heart of the disagreement over the formula was whether state funding was enough to cover the shared-services costs of the school-choice children. Island schools that take on more school-choice students pay more money to the superintendent’s shared-services budget because it is based on the receiving school’s census.

Under the previous method, the high school paid 20 percent of the shared-services budget costs, and the three towns with elementary schools (Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury) and the up-Island district (West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah) were responsible for the school-site enrollment costs, or the costs associated with the number of students physically in each respective school. In essence, the more students the school had, the more money it paid toward the shared-services budget. Every school opts into the school-choice process, however, and only receives as many students as it can accommodate.

Last week, Mr. D’Andrea presented a proposal from the UIRSD committee to change the shared-services budget formula for the school-choice program so that the town where the student resides is charged, as opposed to the school the student attends.

Under the current formula, the receiving school or district contributes approximately $3,400 per student to the shared-services budget.

The funding formula for students presently in the school-choice program would remain the same until they graduate from eighth grade or leave the district.

“This change will result in a gradual transfer (nine years) of charging school-choice students from their attending school to the town in which they reside,” the proposal said.

Robert Lionette, UIRSD committee member, estimated that the school-choice program cost roughly $1,200 a decade ago. Since then, he said, the shared-services budget has grown tremendously, and will most likely continue to grow.

Through the Chapter 70 program, which provides state aid to public elementary and secondary schools, $5,000 is given to the receiving district for each school-choice student it receives. Currently, $3,400 is then charged to the receiving district.

“We’re getting to a point where if your budget continues to rise, as it has in the past decade, we’re going to hit $5,000 in a couple of years,” Mr. Lionette said. “So it would be a complete wash. And at that point, it would be untenable for any school or any district to really participate, because there’s no value as it ends up costing receiving districts.”

UIRSD committee member Kate DeVane responded to the idea of stopping the program altogether as a way to minimize costs. Ms. DeVane told the committee the idea was “not well received,” and said it would be “a sad day” if that occurred.

“We talked about that,” Ms. DeVane said. “Financially, would it be better for us? In some ways, probably yes, but we don’t want to do that because we really are a Martha’s Vineyard school system.”

Chairman of the UIRSD committee Michael Marcus said that in their proposal, they tried their best to make a smooth transition, grandfathering in students already enrolled in the school-choice program.

“The proposal is geared toward having a very slow transition to make it as soft of a landing for all of the towns who are sending more than they’re receiving,” Mr. Marcus said. “This is our best effort to make it as palatable as possible.”

Outside the AISC, Island selectmen voiced their support. Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said the proposal was reasonable, and that it looked at the bigger picture of supporting an Island-wide school system.

Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck also expressed support, but said his concern was that if a solution wasn’t reached, as Mr. Lionette said, eventually the cost of the shared-services budget would exceed the amount of money coming in for school of choice, and would become untenable.

“School choice is extremely important for all the students, the parents, and the community,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “This proposal is a very reasonable way to address the issues that are driving a wedge between the various communities. I think this is an excellent compromise.”

Ms. McAndrews said the AISC should be prepared to vote on the proposal at the next meeting.

‘An investment’

Mr. Smith addressed the AISC at the end of the meeting, telling them that he had been accepted to a three-year executive Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program in K-12 administration at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He will stay on-Island throughout the program, traveling to Virginia one weekend a month and for a two-week residency each summer. All instruction is done on campus, with some online coursework. Mr. Smith began the program in July with his first residency.

“If you’re in an assistant superintendent’s position, it can have a very positive or sometimes a negative impact on the system, and I really feel like I want to do my best in this position,” Mr. Smith said of his desire to pursue a doctoral degree.

Mr. Smith asked the committee if they would approve that he combine three contractual benefits — $2,800 for a raise that he hasn’t taken, $1,800 for contracted travel, and $1,250 for longevity — and add them to his $1,500 for professional development. Mr. Smith would then have $7,350 in his professional-development line, allowing him to pay a large part of his tuition costs for a semester. His program costs $26,000 a year.

Mr. Marcus broke it down: “You’ve got a base salary set, roughly, and for these other benefits, whether it’s an increase in pay, or travel, or some of these other things, you’d like us to lump that over to professional development because it’s beneficial tax-wise,” Mr. Marcus said. “I don’t see any issue with that.”

The AISC unanimously approved the decision to combine the amounts into Mr. Smith’s professional-development line.

“It’s truly an investment in this district when we have individuals in these types of programs,” Mr. D’Andrea said.