The Up-Island Regional School Committee’s first budget workshop for the season on Monday evening revealed expectations for an increase in the Up-Island Regional School District’s expenses.
Before entering the budgetary nitty-gritty, committee chair Alex Salop introduced the committee’s new member, retired teacher and former Aquinnah select board member Jim Newman.
Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman took the committee through the highlights of the budget. Friedman said the current draft of the line item budget represents “the same program, the same services that we’re currently providing.” However, there were adjustments based on the “contractual obligations” that are expected for fiscal year 2024, primarily the collective bargaining agreements.
“There are a lot more changes to make to get this draft done than in previous years because there are a lot more changes as part of the negotiations,” Friedman said, resulting in a 4.65% increase in the line item. The fiscal year 2023 budget was $13.9 million.
One of the major factors in the anticipated expense increase is staff pay. Although the number and type of staffing remain the same in the schools, many employees are receiving pay step increases for next year based, in part, on agreements the Island’s schools agreed upon, like the teacher contracts that were approved in October. Friedman also said some changes came to pay step structures within the agreements.
“Most positions are receiving step increases. In fact, almost all of them are,” Friedman said. The step increases contribute a $216,000 increase in expenses.
The committee will also need to consider other pay structures factoring into expense increases, such as adjusted hourly pay for teaching assistants with longer working days.
Additionally, the varying percentage increases to salaries in the collective bargaining agreements add roughly another $216,000 to the budget increase.
The current version of the budget also has placeholder expenses, such as health insurance and shared services, for line items that remain uncertain at this time.
“Could it be a little higher? Possibly. Could it be a little lower? Possibly. This is probably a middle-of-the-road approach,” Friedman said.
Salop said these seem like nonnegotiable parts of the budget. Friedman said while parts like teacher contracts are nonnegotiable, things like staff numbers are a portion that is within the school committee’s controls.
Something that did not see an increase in this version of the budget was the OPEB (other post-employment benefits) line, which typically increases by $50,000.
Committee member Skipper Manter said this increase should be a part of the base budget, to which committee member Robert Lionette and Salop agreed. Friedman cautioned against this approach since eventually, it could “spike the budget” and there would be a large OPEB line that they do not need to pay liabilities for in the future.
“At this point in our budgeting process, we’re putting in all of the stuff,” Salop said. “We will start pulling things away and we may very well, or we may not, pull away the $50,000. But, let’s start with it in and then when we have to make some hard decisions, we’ll decide whether or not we want to keep it in.”
Salop continued by saying the committee still needs to see what West Tisbury School principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt and Chilmark School principal Susan Stevens are seeking in the budget.
Lionette said he would like to present the most updated OPEB and actuarial information to the Up-Island towns, although he was not sure this can be done this budget season. The committee decided that some members can communicate with the finance committees of their respective towns for this information. Lionette also wanted to see information to understand Up-Island’s “accountability data, performance, student population, and ratio to teachers,” among other item lines.
“In other words, what are we getting out of all of this? What’s working, what’s not working?” Lionette said, continuing later that “this budget is already a bit high” and more will be added in the budget season.
Moving on, Friedman addressed the “projected revenues” for the school district. While the revenues are expected to remain similar to fiscal year 2023, Chapter 71 funding from the state is expected to be around $239,000, which is about a $94,000 increase. Friedman said fiscal year 2023 had a $340,000 revenue offset in last year’s budget. Additionally, the current plan is to wean the school district off the excess and deficiencies (E and D) fund offset used last year in the budget’s contingency line over a two-year period.
There was some disagreement among committee members on how E and D funds should be used for this year’s budget. The committee will return to this issue during another budget workshop. Disagreements about E and D funds delayed the passage of the school district budget last year.
Discussion about the budget will continue after the All-Island school committee meeting on Wednesday, November 16, and Friedman had time to talk with the Up-Island school principals about what they want to see in the budget.