Up-Island school committee delays budget decision

Chilmark School receives donations; West Tisbury School plans an out-of-state field trip.

Martha's Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman presents the fiscal year 2023 budget to the Up-Island school committee.

A majority of the Up-Island Regional School Committee supported the district’s budget on Monday, but the 3-2 vote fell short of the four votes needed to certify the budget.

The fiscal year 2023 assessment of $13.7 million, which was a part of the motion to certify the budget, will also be revisited.

The two dissenting votes belonged to committee members Skipper Manter and Robert Lionette. Manter expressed displeasure of how the E and D (excess and deficiencies) funds were used. Lionette was also concerned about E and D usage, but he additionally said that a message needed to be sent against fossil fuel usage. 

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman said this was the fifth iteration of the fiscal year 2023 budget. During the budget public hearing, Friedman said one difference between the current and the previous draft was the addition of the $50,000 OPEB (other post-employment benefits) expense increase, which was debated during the previous meeting. Another change to the budget was a $50,000 E and D offset. Friedman said the total budgeted expenses of the fiscal year 2023 would be $13.9 million, a 6.34 percent increase from the fiscal year 2022 certified budget of $13 million. 

Some of the costs at the Up-Island schools were supported with E and D offsets, which are reserved for educational purposes. At West Tisbury School, E and D offsets were planned for network security against distributed denial of service attacks ($10,000) and two special education faculty ($59,034.56). More E and D offsets were planned for Chilmark School than in West Tisbury: a regular teacher ($99,039), one special education teacher ($28,680.08), supplies ($3,500), and technical security ($16,769). Chilmark School was also the part of the budget that had the highest increase, at 23.21 percent increase in costs ($331,629.27), which Friedman said was in part because of the increase in students at the school. 

“As far as I can tell … there’s not a tremendous amount of wiggle room here,” committee chair Alex Salop said. 

Committee member Roxanne Ackerman, who is also on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School transportation subcommittee, expressed frustration that the electrification of the Island’s school vehicles was not a part of the budget discussion when OPEB was increased by $50,000. 

Salop said as “a cautionary tale” that one of the multiple reasons Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy was because pensions could not be funded, so he thinks it is important to be able to fund items such as health insurance for the school district’s retired employees. Committee member Kate DeVane said the city of Detroit, Mich., also filed for bankruptcy in part because of OPEB issues in the past. 

Ackerman also said the electrification of the bus fleet was just “being kicked down the road” rather than being addressed. Salop said this was an issue for another meeting. 

Lionette said the avoidance of the bus electrification of the various school committees was “a travesty.” He said there should be a commitment against the purchase and leasing of gas-powered vehicles. 

Salop said the electrification of the buses is an important topic, but this meeting was not the time for it. Additionally, he pointed out, “There are many ethical issues you have to consider” because of how cobalt, a key ingredient for electric vehicle batteries, is mined in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Lionette called using E and D money for personnel “inappropriate.” “I will not support a budget that puts personnel as an E and D offset. We tried that seven or eight years ago, and it bit us in the butt. It’s a bad practice. Moreover, I think it … adds a level of unease to families and staff that they are being viewed as one-year-only … they’re not,” he said. 

Salop agreed, saying it felt “disingenuous” to use E and D offsets for positions that will most likely be needed by the school for much longer than one year. 

Friedman said there are no real requirements on how E and D funds must be used as long as it falls under Massachusetts general law. 

Manter said there was nothing worse the committee could do than using E and D offsets for recurring costs. “Every dollar you spend of our E and D to offset that expense for next year, the following year you’d have to come up with $2,” he said. “These positions, I’m sure the majority of you [committee members] agree that we have to have … they need to stay a part of the base budget that’s going to be recurring and coming back every year, so that we don’t end up in this quagmire … we’re leading ourselves down to.” 

Manter suggested giving E and D back to the towns to protect the budget’s bottom line and to be transparent to the taxpayers. 

Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea disagreed, saying this is money already voted for education, and should be applied as such. 

Other motions related to the budget were also considered. Manter moved to reduce the E and D offset while keeping the contingency line, which was rejected 3-2. Manter and Lionette were the only supporters of the motion, while the other committee members thought it was fine to use the E and D funds. Meanwhile, Lionette moved for the school district to strongly recommend the MVRHS school committee to no longer purchase or lease petroleum-powered vehicles, which was unanimously approved. 

DeVane suggested to those disgruntled about the budget to come back with specific changes for Friedman to potentially implement “if they feel they are not being heard properly.” Additionally, DeVane said, changes could lead to cutting personnel or services, which would be a disservice to up-Island children. 

Salop said these issues will be discussed in a future meeting.

In other business, the committee unanimously approved donations that were given to Chilmark School. The Sound Foundation donated $3,500 to the school for yoga classes, while Monarch Studio donated furniture, according to Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens. 

The committee unanimously approved an out-of-state travel request from West Tisbury School Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt. A field trip is being planned to take students to Buffalo, N.Y., from June 7 to 10.