Up-Island school committee aims to reduce budget increase

The current version equates to a 6.94 percent increase from the FY 2023 budget.

The Up-Island school committee will be taking another stab at reducing proposed budget increase.

The Up-Island Regional School Committee will take one more try at reducing the fiscal year 2024 budget increase before the budget public hearing on Thursday, Dec. 22. 

Before beginning the Monday evening meeting, committee chair Alex Salop asked for a moment of silence in honor of Riley Ignacio-Cameron, the 20-year-old Maine Maritime Academy cadet from Aquinnah who was one of the students killed in a car crash in Maine on Saturday. “I know people who know Riley and talk very highly of him,” Salop said. 

During the previous meeting, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, the committee was presented with a budget 8.81 percent higher than the previous year, at $15.13 million. A large chunk of this increase came from salary increases and the teacher contract negotiation results, according to Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman. This jump in the budget was not palatable to the school committee, and they asked to find ways to reduce the budget, such as eliminating the annual $50,000 increase to the OPEB (other post-employment benefits) line. A few days were spent working on a lower budget, which resulted in a version adding up to a $14.87 million budget, or a 6.94 percent increase from the fiscal year 2023 budget. This cuts $261,000 from the previous version of the 2024 budget, although the contractual expenses still made up the largest portion of the new version. 

“We’ve worked very hard to try to come up with a realistic scenario,” Friedman said, adding that although it was “not entirely comfortable to go down this low,” it was workable. Friedman told the committee that going below the 6.94 percent increase means “We’re basically looking at positions” as the next areas for budget cuts. 

Among the various reductions and cuts, the new version did remove the additional OPEB contributions for fiscal year 2024. Other line items that faced reductions or maintained numbers included equipment and maintenance costs, some student programs, and certain staff pay proposals like those for sports coaches or assistants. Some line items will experience no changes to funding from fiscal year 2023. Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens also said later there are uncertainties on what level of staffing she may need for the kindergarten class next year, because the hiring is based on student population. 

Salop asked whether it was possible to develop a strategy to receive donations from parents “to fund these programs in the absence of funding in the budget,” such as the $140 increase for West Tisbury School’s Nature’s Classroom program cut from the budget. West Tisbury Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt underscored a need for stable funding for programs, particularly for staff pay, although Salop’s idea was a possibility. Lowell-Bettencourt said she hoped to use afterschool program grants to “buy us some time” while the budget was being made, although it was not guaranteed these funds would be available. 

Salop said it might be beneficial to “revisit some of the programs” to see funding options after the budget has been certified. Lowell-Bettencourt said volunteers and school partners were used in the past to offset costs, which is a possibility. 

After Friedman and the principals shared the draft budget highlights, Salop said the 6.94 percent increase differed from the two budget increase versions the committee requested: 4.65 percent and 6.5 percent. He asked whether these were not presented because of a lack of time or feasibility. Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent Richie Smith said in order to get to those numbers it would affect positions “that currently reside at both schools.”

“We went in, we met twice. We met on Friday for quite a bit of time, met today for quite a bit of time, to get it just below 7 [percent],” Smith said. “This represents pulling back on the original version where both [schools] wanted to grow.”

Smith said it would take much more time to get closer to the 4 percent area than was given. 

“A 4½ percent increase, to get down to that level, would require us to decrease this expense budget by another $340,000,” Friedman said. “There’s no way that we’re doing that without going into staffing in positions in a notable way.” 

Salop said, “I thought it would be unlikely that we can find a scenario where we have that many cuts and I’d be satisfied,” particularly if it would hinder providing “sufficient services to the kids.” 

Committee member Robert Lionette pointed out that the up-Island student-to-teacher ratio has “grown smaller and smaller,” and will need to be examined by the school administration. He also raised the fact that the 4.65 percent increase would be in line with the average increases for the past five years in the school district. 

“We can’t [go with] the assumption that all staffing and all programs are beneficial or the most efficient it can be,” Lionette said. “However, it’s not a position the committee wants to be in. We should not be making those decisions.” 

Smith said the 4.65 percent can be looked into, but “frankly, I think it’s a waste of time.” 

“To make strategic cuts [worth $300,000] … it will take hours. And then we come in here and you look at it for 15 minutes — that’s not a good use of time,” Smith said.

Smith also made points that each school is already lacking some resources because of the cuts. 

“I mean, Susan’s budget is already pretty bare bones right now. There’s no contingency for her to go into if she needs an ESP. She expressed a couple of things that might be something that rears up during the school year. There’s nothing in that budget. Donna’s, there was need for growth in certain areas. She’s pulled those things back, but she would have to go into the programming,” Smith said. 

Other factors increasing the budget Smith reminded the committee about were that the U.S. is facing the highest levels of inflation in 40 years, and this is the year with the highest staff pay increases Smith has seen in the 21 years he has worked in the Martha’s Vineyard system. If the committee is serious about possibly cutting positions, then the administration will rework the budget and “be unified” in delivering the message. Otherwise, it is a futile effort. 

Committee member Roxanne Ackerman said it was “tragic” to consider eliminating positions, and hoped there were other line items that could be explored for reductions instead. Salop said with the little time remaining, “lofty” goals, like analyzing the benefits of a program or the student-to-teacher ratio, could not be pursued between November and December. However, Salop said, the “weak points” of the budget will need to be understood for next year so another spike doesn’t occur and “make sure we’re not asking the taxpayers to pay an undue burden every year.” 

Stevens pointed out that her student population has grown 20 percent this year. Meanwhile, Lowell-Bettencourt underscored how “amazing” the additional programs have been for the children’s development. 

“If you want us to start looking at programs, we can do that. But we’re going to be cutting out success and things that were valuable to people,” Lowell-Bettencourt said, adding she will not be bringing recommendations to the committee for program cuts unless she has had a chance to notify the staff about the possibility. 

Salop said he understands the school district does not want to cut programs. However, he pointed out that the costs should not be hung over taxpayers’ heads. He asked whether one more week would be enough to develop a budget that is more suitable for both committee members and school administrators.

When committee member Jim Newman asked whether other school districts “were going through this,” Friedman said, “Yes.”

“All of them are looking at unusual increases … from both, as Richie said, both inflation, to a degree, but also the effects of the collective bargaining agreements as well,” Friedman said. 

Salop later expressed “it would be great” if Martha’s Vineyard could “operate as one district rather than having to compete with all of these separate districts on this one Island where we all live.” 

After further discussion, the committee and school administrators agreed to use one more week to develop the budget with an aim to reduce it to a 4.65 percent increase. The committee’s next budget discussion is on Monday, Dec. 19.