The Up-Island Regional School District is looking at a $15.13 million budget for fiscal year 2024, an 8.81% increase from the previous fiscal year’s budget of $13.9 million, unless some expenses can be trimmed. No vote was taken on this draft budget by the Up-Island Regional School Committee during the Wednesday evening meeting.
“The assessed budget would go up a little less than that, but it’s still up a little over 8%,” Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman said.
The first budget workshop in November showed an expected 4.65% increase to the budget, largely due to increases in staff pay. However, that version had placeholder expenses because of uncertain line items, like health insurance which is now expected to cost a total of $171,698.16. Another item that saw an increase was the annual $50,000 addition to the OPEB (other post-employment benefits) line, which is listed at $74,000 in the second draft.
Committee chair Alex Salop asked how much the new teachers contracts, which were agreed upon in October after lengthy negotiations, “have an impact on this budget.” According to Friedman, the school budgets across Martha’s Vineyard are “going up between 4 and 5 percent due to those collective bargaining agreements.”
While looking through the budget, committee member Robert Lionette said, “it might be instructive to start from 30,000 feet” before scrutinizing each line item.
“How do we collectively feel about this budget and where do we want to drill down on it?” Lionette said.
Salop believed the committee does not think the big budget increase was “a good thing” considering fiscal year 2023’s budget was a 6.34% increase from fiscal year 2022’s budget of $13 million.
“On the other hand, what we have to take into consideration is how much of this is based on these collective bargaining agreements, how much of it might just be a reflection of inflationary pressures … and how much of it is truly discretionary?” Salop said.
When looking at necessities and what could be cut when COVID was rampant, West Tisbury School principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said, “We were looking at what if we had zero percent and we were looking at scenarios to get there … COVID hit and we were looking at where we could save in the current budget.” While the following year’s budget was discussed, Lowell-Bettencourt said the concern was “what happens if we couldn’t make it within the end of the year by the end of the year because of different things,” such as receivables.
Lionette said the 8.81% increase was “not palatable” to him.
“We looked Island-wide and we see that that’s about double the average school. We know the high school is having a budget at [a 2.32% increase] with the largest population growth of any school,” Lionette said. “I want to turn this around another way. I think I’d rather see us start giving some numbers we can stomach for growth, what we think is defensible to our constituency.”
Lionette continued by saying while he was “uncomfortable” with the draft budget, it was moot to debate on line items like fuel costs or snow removal since “that’s happening. If the committee wants an increase closer to 4 or 5 percent, Lionette felt it should be based on the guidance of the principals for what line items could be eliminated.
After some discussion about how the budgeting process should be executed, Salop requested Friedman for data on budget increases from the last five years “to understand what this trend looks like.” The data showed that between fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2023, there was an average annual budget increase of 4.72%. The fiscal year 2018 budget was $11.26 million. Friedman said the average annual expense increase in this time period was 4.65%.
When committee member Skipper Manter asked how Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) kept its budget increase so low, Lionette, who chairs the high school committee, said it was “in ways I’m not sure are completely applicable here.”
“The principal cut back in so many of the support areas, whether it was workshop fund lines … all of that got cut back considerably,” Lionette said, adding that staffing remained the same compared to the school population growth.
Martha’s Vineyard superintendent Richie Smith made a point that even for the MVRHS budget, going too low would mean considerations for programming cuts. Manter said since the MVRHS budget was based on spending while the Up-Island school budget also includes offsets, “you really can’t compare the two.”
Salop said the Up-Island school committee had three routes it could take: agreeing to trim down the budget “by a certain amount and have the schools figure out what could be cut, a line-by-line analysis on what cuts could be made by the committee members,” or “to discuss some of the topics over which we have some influence” like OPEB. He suggested figuring out a basic amount the committee would be willing to work with. Salop also said the committee members should look into the line items they had an influence over and the schools should come back with suggestions for attaining that amount.
After some discussion, the committee agreed to talk with the Up-Island finance committees on whether it would be fine to eliminate the $50,000 increase to the OPEB obligations. Other line items the school committee considered for possible trimming included the contingency fund and one-time expenses like furniture.
Salop suggested attempting to keep the budget at a 6.5% increase. Smith pointed out that this was a unique year because of the teacher contract negotiations and inflation, so he suggested keeping in mind for the highest percentage increase among past budgets Friedman showed for the reconsideration. Friedman said that would be 6.34% increase.
Lionette told The Times on Friday other considerations moving forward are that the budget seems to be increasing more compared to what is expected based on the population changes in the Up-Island schools. Others include a universal preschool program, which Lowell-Bettencourt said during the meeting is currently estimated to cost $250,000 that the principals want to place as a warrant article for town meeting, and the West Tisbury School electrification project and whether the town is willing to pay for the costs. Lionette said a “spitball” cost for that project could be up to around $50 million. It was also discussed during the meeting whether renovations or a new school would be the right approach.
The committee is scheduled to discuss the budget one more time on Monday, Dec. 12, before holding a public hearing and possible certification of the budget on Thursday, Dec. 22 at 5 pm.
Of course the first thing they want to cut is OPED and that fund is the most important of all of them. That is the kick the can down the road fund and let the next generation worry about it. Does someone know the actual deficiencies in that OPED account? instead of cutting the 50,000 they should be adding an additional 50,000 just to try to catch up. All this does is put the burden on the future taxpayers. These teacher contracts are going to continue to go up and the liability is going to continue to go up.
Everyone’s pay keeps going up.
It must stop.
Buy now, pay later, is the American way of life.
Maybe administrative expenses can be cut. Many students fell behind during MVBOH’s prolonged covid lockdown and prolonged student mask mandate; refusal to follow the MA Reopening Plan further stifled learning opportunities for students. I wonder if any CARES Act, Federal and State funding can be used to provide professionally implemented reading programs. Instead of adding reading programs to the the budget, reassign existing budget line items. The goals: 1) help students catch up from zoom-school 2) improve the district’s literacy rate and 3) improve individual reading levels, all in a timely manner.
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