Island Education Leaders Fear Budget Cut Layoffs

By CHRIS BURRELL

Bracing for the possibility of even deeper cuts to state aid for schools, Island school leaders now say they must consider laying off teachers and trimming both academic and extra-curricular programs.

The dire forecast came this week in reaction to Gov. Mitt Romney's proposed budget, which included significant cutbacks to the Vineyard's two regional school districts - up-Island and the high school.

All told, the governor's proposal would reduce aid to the two districts by some 27 per cent, falling from roughly $2.9 million to $2.1 million.

Transportation aid would be slashed in half - a loss of $300,000 in anticipated revenue - if Governor Romney's proposal is approved by the legislature, according to Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash.

Mr. Cash expressed shock at the latest budget proposal, noting that Governor Romney was promising as recently as last month not to reduce school aid by more than 10 per cent.

Now, principals and school committees are scrambling to come up with budgets to deal with the worst-case scenario, and it will inevitably mean layoffs of staff.

"Unless the House and Senate do something different, that's what it will be," said Mr. Cash.

Regional high school principal Peg Regan told the Gazette this week, "We'd have to cut personnel and not just a couple people. Almost every program would be touched. It would mean bigger class sizes and fewer electives."

It could also mean that the high school would have to institute a fee-based system for extra-curricular and athletic activities and possibly cut some of those programs.

While no one can say what programs or academic programs might face cutbacks, Mr. Cash explained that union rules would mandate using seniority as the main criterion for laying off teachers.

"We're just going to inform everybody how desperate this looks," said Mrs. Regan. "We have to be realistic."

The teachers' union contract requires that staff members slated to be laid off must be notified between May 15 and June 15.

But it's unclear whether the state legislature will have passed a budget by then as it struggles to deal with falling revenues and a growing deficit.

"Let me pretty blunt, it's a mess," Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary told the Gazette this week.

Senator O'Leary explained that Governor Romney has not only proposed severe cuts to education but has also changed the way funds will be distributed. In the past, state education aid, known as Chapter 70, went directly to the regional schools.

Now, the governor is proposing funneling money to the towns and leaving the decision up to town leaders whether to earmark the money for regional school budgets.

"There's no guarantee or requirement that the town will move that money to the regional school districts," said the senator. "It creates a level of uncertainty whether the schools will get it and how much is there."

Senator O'Leary said it appears the governor is trying to shift more of the burden for education cost back onto the local communities. Meanwhile, the towns are sure to face their own round of cuts in state aid.

As selectmen and finance committees in the Island's six towns try to craft a budget for next year, they are becoming increasingly anxious how they can fund public services without asking for overrides of Proposition 2 1/2.

"The finance committee is trying hard to put together something so we don't have to go out for an override," said Oak Bluffs finance committee chairman John Lolley. "But these things keep popping up."