After progressing through three different iterations of the FY23 Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools shared services budget, school officials approved a $7.7 million budget — a 3.96 percent increase from FY22.
At an All-Island School Committee meeting Thursday, Superintendent Matt D’Andrea described areas of the budget where savings were found, and other areas where line items needed to be increased.
He noted that the shared services budget typically sees anywhere from a 3 to 4 percent increase each year, and with the prior iteration of the budget (version two) falling around a 5.15 percent increase, administrators went through line by line to get the increase down to where it is now.
One of the most significant stressors for the FY23 shared services budget is personnel adjustments and additions, which include changes to employee steps, health insurance benefits, cost of living adjustments, and other elements.
“We need to get creative and efficient and look for alternative ways of doing things, alternative funding options,” D’Andrea said.
Special education costs take up a significant portion of the shared services budget, with both the behavioral health–based Bridge and Compass programs, along with Project Headway, encompassed in the line item.
These programs serve the Island’s most high-need students, D’Andrea said, and they are crucial to keeping students with disabilities and additional needs on the Island with their families, instead of heading off-Island to receive support.
Although the pandemic has affected students of all abilities and needs, there are increasing stresses within the student body related to the shared services budget.
The central office and finance department are also contained in this budget, accounting for payroll, benefits, retirements, and appropriate reporting.
“That is growing too, as regulations and reporting requirements from the federal and state government grow and change,” D’Andrea explained.
Additionally, the English language learner programs are funded by shared services allocations, which D’Andrea said are also seeing a growing need due to the pandemic and other factors.
In 2018, the nonprofit health and wellness organization Medstar conducted a comprehensive school wellness evaluation of Island schools. Based on recommendations by Medstar, school budget planners have increased behavioral health supports to meet the needs of students.
The school strings program is also a major part of the budget, D’Andrea said. He stressed the value of the music programs in Island schools, noting that they provide opportunities for many students who wouldn’t otherwise participate in extracurriculars. “There is lots of research about how students that engage in music pick up reading quicker than many that do not,” D’Andrea added.
He said the strings line was placed in the shared services budget by former Superintendent Kriner Cash, who was concerned that if the strings program was funded through the local school committees, it might get cut in times of tight budgetary restrictions. “He was concerned that it might be the first thing that goes,” D’Andrea said.
Some liberal placeholders that D’Andrea said would most likely come in lower than what was planned were reduced in the proposed budget, such as a placeholder for negotiations, which in version two of the budget sat at $123,000 but was reduced to $98,000 in the final draft.
An additional almost $20,000 in savings was recovered in salary lines that were overbudgeted during the prior year’s budget planning process.
In the previous draft of the budget, there was a 10 percent increase for health insurance, but in prior years, D’Andrea said, those numbers haven’t been quite that high, so he reduced the line increase from 10 percent to 7.5 percent. “That is across the board, within all different programs,” he said.
There were some increases to the budget that school officials deemed were necessary to adequately support students and staff. About $10,500 is included in the budget that will go toward a policy review conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), which D’Andrea said he believes is necessary to review and reorganize the policy manual, as well as put a digital version of the manual online for increased access. Another major addition is an approximately $92,600 line for a school psychologist.
Initially, Island schools were looking at a full-time diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) coordinator. Considering budgetary constraints, officials have adjusted that position to a contracted consultant who will do an equity review for the school system for about $30,000.
Among other positions that are funded through annual grants, the DEI position will be paid for using a grant that targets diversity and equity in schools.
Several committee members were concerned about funding these kinds of important positions with grants — some of which are competitive and must be pursued annually.
Committee member Amy Houghton said funding positions with grants instead of carving out a permanent position within the budget demonstrates that the school system is not financially prepared to make the commitment to behavioral health and other aspects of student wellbeing at this time.
Committee chair Kate DeVane said in the past, the schools have had positions that started out as grant-funded positions, and then were fed into the main school budget.
She requested that there be some sort of indication next to line items that are supplemented or fully funded through grants that are recurring, and will need to be re-evaluated during the following budget season. “Anything that is funded by a grant needs to be a one-year deal, then come back to the drawing board for the following years,” DeVane said.
Committee member Kelly McKracken wondered why the grants coordinator salary position went from around $50,000 up to $72,000.
Island schools business manager Mark Friedman explained that this area has been under high stress, as the schools are looking to pursue and administer more grants in order to cover necessary expenses.
“There is full-time work just to administer the grants, not grant writing,” Friedman said. “This coordinator is taking in the grants and making sure they go to the right place, along with providing detailed reporting to the proper authorities.”
He noted that it shouldn’t surprise the committee if he comes back in the near future with requests for additional resources for this position.
Overall, the budget was reduced by about $63,000 from the previous budget iteration.
Before voting to approve the budget, DeVane made a friendly amendment that approval of the budget be contingent upon coming back to the drawing board next year to reconsider any grant-funded positions before they are injected into the budget.
Committee member Amy Houghton motioned to approve the FY23 shared services budget with a total expenditure line of $7.7 million. It was approved by the committee, with members Robert Lionette and Skipper Manter dissenting.