MVRHS delays budget certification

School officials say proposed budget and warrant articles need more discussion.

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The MVRHS Minnesingers performed one of their Christmas songs for the school committee and members of the public. — Lucas Thors

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School will wait to certify a proposed $23 million operating budget in order to allow for more discussion at the subcommittee level.

The proposed budget for FY21 stands at an increase of 2.75 percent over the FY20 approved budget level.

Along with the proposed budget needing more dialogue to see where possible cuts could be made, another issue made it difficult for committee members to confidently vote to certify the budget at Monday’s meeting. 

Three warrant articles were proposed for 2020 town meetings, and some committee members wondered whether there should be a policy adopted to consider what should be submitted as a warrant article, and what should be included in the operating budget.

The first article (with a price tag of $100,000) deals with the appropriation of funds to pay for a landscaping and tree-planting project on the district’s property border with the Deer Run neighborhood near the track.

The second article, for $25,000, would fund a facilities design to upgrade the horticulture department and bring it up to current standards.

The final proposed article for town meetings would include funding for several capital projects totaling $185,000.

Committee member Kris O’Brien said she is fine with the proposed 2.75 percent increase, but suggested implementing a policy that defines why an item is submitted as a warrant article.

“It would behoove all of us to extend the timeline a month for certification of this budget,” O’Brien said. “The budget and facilities [subcommittees] should reconvene and really delve deep into these warrant articles and define what they are — there is a lot at stake here.”

According to O’Brien, her change of mind was in part based on feedback from the community.

“It feels like we don’t have a guiding light on what is and isn’t going to be included at town meetings,” O’Brien said.

Committee member Janet Packer said she is “completely uncomfortable” putting the replacement of the girls sports teams gym lockers into a warrant article.

“This just doesn’t feel right. We didn’t have to do this for the boys lockers, we put it right into the budget,” Packer said. “This has the potential to not pass all six towns — what do we do then? What type of message does that send to our girls?”

Although committee member Robert Lionette agreed that more discussion should be had at the subcommittee level surrounding the proposed warrant articles and budget, he said a couple of the articles are “truly outliers” that don’t belong in an operational budget.

“To have some of this stuff live in the budget is really faulty,” Lionette said. “It will spike the budget, when these things should have been taken care of a long time ago.”

To O’Brien’s suggestion to formalize a policy surrounding warrant articles, Lionette said the process of drafting, developing, and performing three readings of a policy would push the committee past this year’s budget cycle threshold. 

“If we don’t do these warrant articles, they will have to go back in the budget,” Lionette said.

Committee member Amy Houghton said the budget subcommittee has asked for significant budget cuts in recent meetings that she, and possibly staff and community members, were largely unaware of.

“I would like to see us slow this process down a little bit, and really go headfirst into where we can make reasonable cuts in a reasonable amount of time,” Houghton said.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea suggested that if folks don’t feel comfortable voting on the budget certification, they should table the decision.

“The towns are going to be reaching out soon asking for numbers. I think we should keep the possibility of these separate warrant articles on the table for discussion at future meetings,” D’Andrea said.

Multiple teachers were present at the meeting to hear about possible cuts to supplies, technology, and staffing.

MVRHS English teacher Spencer D’Agostino said that if serious considerations are being made to potentially cut staff, he would like to be an active part of that conversation in subcommittee meetings.

“Teachers who don’t normally attend these meetings would like a chance to discuss this in a forum where we can focus on those cuts, and not take time away from other important business,” D’Agostino said.

MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy said school officials have had dialogue about trimming multiple areas of the budget that are able to be trimmed, but that some fixed costs and unanticipated changes have put the school in this position.

“The hard question to ask is when fixed costs go up 14 percent, transportation goes up 11 percent, and facilities goes up 25 percent, does that mean the corresponding instructional and staffing costs go down as well?” Dingledy said. “To get to that 2.75 percent and stick with it, we are going to probably go into some sort of staffing reduction. We can cut some costs through retirement and attrition, but not all.”

Committee chair Kim Kirk said cuts are necessary because the school is an aging facility that is reaching “crisis level.”

“We need to be responsible and make sure we are meeting our obligation in providing for the kids of this Island,” Kirk said. “Obviously the staff plays a huge role in that. But there are so many competing interests, and the building you are sitting in is one of those interests.”

The warrant article for the landscaping project was also at issue, as committee members said what was promised to the residents of Deer Run in 1995 is no longer necessary in that area. Initially, residents of Deer Run were promised that any negative visual and auditory effects caused by the track location would be ameliorated by both fencing and a natural barrier of tall pine trees.

But now, school officials are wondering what their first steps should be after more than a decade following the original landscaping plan.

“We know what was asked for in 1995 is not what we need to do now,” Houghton said. “I can’t stand up in Tisbury and support this warrant article if I don’t know how we are going to solve that problem.”

D’Andrea suggested the committee meet with Deer Run property owners to talk about what is there now, and what would be the best way to move forward with an updated plan. “That will give us a better idea of what the $100,000 is supposed to pay for,” D’Andrea said.