Schools Seek Finance Help

Leaders of Island School Districts Seek Reassurance from Towns that State Local Aid Funds Will Support Education

By CHRIS BURRELL

With annual town meeting season only days away, school leaders this week pressured Island selectmen and town financial teams to back amended school budgets that would earmark state funds for educational spending and avert the need to lay off teachers for next year.

The scrambling for political support, which began Monday morning and continued through late Wednesday night, was spurred by Gov. Mitt Romney's recommended budget for next year, proposing deep cuts in aid for schools and a massive overhaul in the way local aid is distributed.

Put simply, state funds that used to go directly to the Island's two regional school districts - the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the Up Island Regional School District - would now go straight to the towns if the governor gets his way.

Vineyard school leaders from the two districts now want guarantees that these state funds will come back to their budgets, and they will ask voters at town meeting in the next two weeks to support that action.

Even though state legislators will take a crack at crafting a budget later this spring and chart their own course for digging out of the state's ever-deepening fiscal hole, Governor Romney's recommendation remains for now the only guidepost for schools and towns as they try to predict just how much state aid they can factor into their annual spending plans.

The pressure to answer those questions is magnified by deadlines, the first of which is town meetings. All six Vineyard towns are poised to decide their annual budgets by the end of next month. But the schools are also facing a May 15 deadline, when principals are contractually required to notify any teachers who might be laid off.

This week, the friction came from Tisbury where officials balked at the school's bid to claim the state money, saying that in the climate of state revenue shortfalls that could exceed $2 billion, they can't count on the governor producing the local aid promised in his budget.

In Edgartown, selectman Arthur Smadbeck staked out the opposite view, arguing that the governor's latest budget plan poses nothing more serious than "an accounting situation," easily resolved by simply shifting state money from town coffers to school budgets.

But whether simple or complex, school principals this week sounded an alarm, saying that if town meeting voters don't back the amendments to deposit those funds back in their accounts, they will be forced to slash their budgets, laying off teachers and cutting whole programs from athletics to art and music.

"We are lobbying to recoup that money and give it back to the schools," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash told a meeting of the All-Island Selectmen Wednesday night in the regional high school library.

More than 70 people, including teachers, parents and even students, turned out for the meeting which had been advertised on a sign in front of the high school for most of the last two weeks with three words: "Save Our Schools."

Technically speaking, saving the schools will require voters to approve increased assessments to fund the two regional school budgets. Leaders at the regional high school are looking for $1.6 million. In the up-Island school district, that figure is roughly $300,000.

Mr. Cash told selectmen this week that amending the school budgets to increase the assessments by those amounts should not pose a burden to the towns under Governor Romney's budget.

That's because the governor has created a new category of local aid called "transitional mitigation aid," which would total more than $2.2 million for all the Island towns next year.

Despite the assurances, Tisbury officials blasted the plan. Selectman Thomas Pachico called on high school committee members to retool their budget and find more savings.

"There seems to be a lot of fat in the budget," he said, pointing to administrators earning nearly $100,000 a year and enjoying raises of up to 10 per cent.

Tisbury finance director Timothy McLean later told selectmen, "If we commit to using the mitigation aid and it doesn't come, the town will have to cut $450,000 from its own budget."

Tisbury's defiance failed to create any groundswell among other Island towns. On the contrary, selectmen from Edgartown and Chilmark both threw considerable support behind the schools and easing their plight.

"We need to get the money back to the school aid sheet," said Mr. Smadbeck.

"I echo the same sentiments from Chilmark," said that town's selectman, Warren Doty, who went on to criticize Governor Romney's move to cut educational funding. "This is billions for bombs and pennies for schools," he added, earning a round of applause.

Selectmen from Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury said they wanted to help the schools but were waiting on advice from their town counsel before committing to the request.

Meanwhile, Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, who has been invited to the next meeting of the All-Island Selectmen in April, told the Gazette yesterday that deeper cuts are coming.

"What you're going to be looking at will be significant," he said. "It might leave the schools worse off than in the Romney budget."