While Schools Here Rank High in Per-Pupil Dollars, Enrollments Head Down

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

School spending on the Vineyard is steadily rising on a flood tide of property tax money and now ranks in the top third for the state, while enrollment is steadily falling and expected to ebb even more in the next five years.

This is the latest profile of public education on the Vineyard, sketched through an array of statistics from the state department of education and the local schools.

Preliminary numbers released recently for 2002 for every school district in the state show that per-pupil spending on the Vineyard ranged from $10,000 in Oak Bluffs to more than $13,000 in Edgartown and at the two up-Island elementary schools (West Tisbury and Chilmark together form the Up-Island Regional School District). The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the Tisbury School fell in the middle, with per-pupil spending of just over $12,000.

The numbers put the Vineyard in the same league - and in many cases several notches above - the most affluent suburban school districts in the state when it comes to per-pupil spending.

Per-pupil spending in the town of Lincoln was $12,000 in 2002, and in the city of Brookline, it was just over $10,000.

"It's high here but it's high compared to what? I am sensitive to people who see their taxes go up every year and feel strained," said Vineyard schools superintendent Kriner Cash.

"Enrichment, travel, athletics - we offer more opportunity to our children here on the Vineyard than I have ever seen in my career. But that is the hallmark of Martha's Vineyard public education - opportunity for learning and enrichment and that costs, that costs," he added.

Mr. Cash said a better comparison for the Vineyard are towns like Rowe and Savoy, where student enrollment is low and town budgets are comparatively modest. Per-pupil spending was $14,000 in Rowe and over $12,000 in Savoy.

Meanwhile, statistics released recently by the New England School Development Council show that school enrollment all across the Vineyard has peaked and is now dropping. Here is the snapshot of what happened with enrollment in the last seven years, and what is projected for the next five years:

* In West Tisbury enrollment dropped from 402 to 374 between 1996 and 2003, a decrease of 7 per cent. By 2008 enrollment is projected to drop to 355, another 5 per cent decrease.

* In Edgartown enrollment dropped from 432 to 359 between 1996 and 2003, a decrease of 13 per cent. By 2008 enrollment is projected to drop to 348, a decrease of 3 per cent.

* In Chilmark enrollment dropped from 61 to 59 between 1996 and 2003, a decrease of 3 per cent. By 2008 enrollment is project to drop to 56, a decrease of 5 per cent.

* In Tisbury enrollment dropped from 410 to 320 between 1996 and 2003, a decrease of 22 per cent. By 2008 the number is expected to drop to 310, a decrease of 3 per cent.

* In Oak Bluffs enrollment climbed from 416 to 432 between 1996 and 2003, an increase of 3 per cent, although the number has been dropping since 2001, when enrollment peaked at 460. The decline is projected to continue, and by 2008 enrollment at the Oak Bluffs School is expected to drop to 394, a decrease of more than 8 per cent.

* At the regional high school the trend has followed a track similar to that of Oak Bluffs. Between 1996 and 2003, enrollment at the high school climbed from 569 to 806, an increase of 41 per cent. The number peaked at 814 in 2002 and then began to drop; by 2008 enrollment at the high school is expected to drop to 763, a decrease of 5 per cent.

All of these numbers come against a backdrop of rising school budgets in every Island town.

In Edgartown voters approved a $4.4 million school operating budget for 2004, an increase of 5.9 per cent over last year. In Oak Bluffs voters approved a $4.6 million school budget, a 5 per cent increase over last year. In Tisbury voters approved a $3.9 million school budget, an increase of 5.2 per cent over last year. The new operating budget for the high school was certified at $11.6 million, an increase of 5.3 per cent over last year, while the budget for the Up-Island Regional School District came in at $7.6 million, an increase of 7.2 per cent over last year.

The new budgets go into effect on July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

Using the latest enrollment figures, per-pupil spending for each of the districts looks like this for the coming year:

* Edgartown, $12,455.

* Oak Bluffs, $10,685.

* Tisbury, $12,228.

* Regional high school, $14,406.

* Up-Island regional district, $17,571.

Mr. Cash cautioned that per-pupil spending should only be calculated using actual spending and not budgets, because all the money may not be spent in a single year.

Per-pupil spending reported by the state is called day program spending, which means it includes spending for all students, including regular students, students with special needs and vocational students.

The figures are calculated using only what are considered direct education costs, including instruction, administration and supplies. Indirect costs such as transportation money and debt are not included.

Spending on special needs - always a higher number - is also broken out separately.

In an interview this week, Mr. Cash did not shy from the plain truth: that education spending on the Vineyard is high. But he said it is important to understand the context, which includes the steep cost of living on the Island, a factor that affects everything from supplies and services to teacher salaries.

Many services, including speech, occupational therapy and a variety of special needs programs, are mandatory under state education laws.

Also, the Vineyard high school is one of the few remaining comprehensive high schools in the state, which means that all forms of instruction take place under one roof, from college preparatory to vocational education. Vocational education is expensive. The Vineyard high school has four vocational programs: Culinary arts, building trades, horticulture and automotive. The programs are considered valuable skill training for Island students who are not college bound.

Small class size is another plus in the Vineyard schools, Mr. Cash said, where the average class size is 15-18 at the high school and 12-18 in the elementary schools.

Class size is a subject for debate today among educators and politicians alike. Federal legislative initiatives to reduce class size across the nation have grabbed headlines in recent years, but more than one study has shown little correlation between reduced class size and student performance.

"Whether or not large-scale reductions in class sizes help or hurt will depend mostly on whether new teachers are better or worse than existing teachers," wrote Eric A. Hanushek, a well-known education scholar, in a lengthy analysis of reduced class size.

Mr. Cash said on the Vineyard quality instruction is the word.

"Our teachers are highly qualified - our assistant teachers are highly qualified, and it shows. Our students perform - watch what they do," he said.

When it comes to test scores, Vineyard students appear to fall just above the middle, but the scores are often difficult to interpret.

The test that gets the most attention these days is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). MCAS results on the Vineyard last year showed a mixed bag - students showed strong proficiency in reading but lagged in math and social studies.

Mr. Cash said total school spending is about $30 million; the Vineyard schools employ just over 500 people.

The superintendent's budget for the coming year is $2.2 million, but Mr. Cash pointed out that only $500,000 of his budget is devoted to administration, while the rest is devoted to shared school programs, including music, environmental education, speech, and social skills classes.

"We are very lean in administration, especially when compared with other school districts," Mr. Cash said.

The overall budget outlook for the coming year may be tight. School administrators are bracing for sharp reductions in transportation reimbursement money from the state; the reduction is expected to translate to $250,000 in budget cuts at the local level. Anticipating the cuts, Mr. Cash said pink slips were sent to 37 employees who have worked in the schools for less than two years. The employees, who include teaching assistants, custodians and secretaries, were notified that they are likely to be laid off come July 1. The lion's share of the pink slips - 33 - went to the up-Island district, while four went to the high school.

Mr. Cash said school spending on the Vineyard is sanctioned by the voters.

"We have always said we will give you what you want - there is a community standard here for education, and I think people want that for their kids. If we have a budget and people vote it down, then we will go back and give them what they want," he said. "But I think that what we have is what the community wants, and I am clear as day about our need to manage things prudently. We manage well and our audits are proof of that.

"Do you have what you want or do you want what you have, and I think the answer is both for this community," he concluded.