School Budget Talks Highlight Steady Rise in Cost of Education

By RACHEL KOVAC

The merits of forming a single regional school district came to the forefront of an all-Island school committee meeting this week, as an increase in the budget for the Vineyard schools superintendent prompted discussion once again about ways to manage rising costs in education.

The $2.7 million superintendent's budget was certified at the meeting of the all-Island school committee Tuesday night. The budget marks a 4.7 per cent increase over last year, most of which comes from payroll obligations.

Superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss called the budget a level service budget, and pointed out that non-salary changes over the current budget actually account for a decrease of $4,500.

But school committee members noted that even with flat or declining student enrollment, costs are on the rise and questioned whether the superintendent's office is being run efficiently.

"We did go back and nickel and dime this budget," said Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs. "If you're going to cut the superintendent's piece you are going to have to regionalize."

The superintendent's budget is different from other school budgets, in part because it encompasses a list of ancillary service programs for the Island schools, including psychologists, speech therapists, an autism program, Project Headway, social skills and the English language learner (ELL) program.

To fund the superintendent's budget, each elementary school district is assessed based on student enrollment; the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School always pays 20 per cent regardless of enrollment, part of the regional agreement created in 1956.

The high school, with an enrollment of 822 students will pay about $313,000 this year for its share of the superintendent's budget, while the Tisbury school, with an enrollment of 306 will pay $539,000, up 10 per cent from last year.

"Every year someone has to pay more," Ms. Tierney said. "Last year it was Oak Bluffs and this year it is Tisbury."

Ms. Tierney said if the schools operated under one regional agreement the superintendent's office would operate more efficiently and would be in better shape financially. Under a regional school system, each town would be assessed based on the total number of students enrolled in school, much the way the high school is funded now.

Currently Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury each have a school committee. Representatives from Chilmark, Aquinnah and West Tisbury serve on a separate, up-Island committee, which oversees the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools.

Representatives from each of these committees also sit on the nine-member regional high school district committee.

The 14-member all-Island school committee, formerly called the union school committee, deals mainly with hiring the superintendent and negotiating teacher contracts.

The Island school system has nearly 3,000 students and a combined budget of $30 million.

Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a school committee member from West Tisbury and the only dissenting vote on the budget, said every year the superintendent's budget rises and administrators claim it is a bare bones budget. He added that every year the superintendent promises to reorganize the office, but it does not happen.

"The superintendent has only been here for a few months," all-Island school committee chairman David Rossi said. "He hasn't had time to reorganize."

Committee members asked Ms. Tierney and Mr. Weiss if there were things they wanted in the budget but did not put in because of financial concerns.

The two administrators mentioned several positions, including adding a facilities manager and moving the information technology coordinator and the transportation coordinator from the high school to the superintendent's office.

"Until people start thinking outside of the box on this regionalization thing we aren't going to get anywhere," Mr. Rossi said.

On a separate front, an audit report received last week by the up-Island regional school district and the high school district reinforced the potential benefits of an all-Island regional school district.

A management letter from Chris Rogers, a certified public accountant with Sullivan, Rogers and Company, identified several flaws within the school system, which Ms. Tierney said could be better handled under a single regional school system. Auditors pointed out problems with procurement processes and accounting system security, among other things.

As for the high school, which is scheduled to certify its budget in just two weeks, administrators are hoping the $13.8 million budget - which has been fluctuating due to problems with transportation costs - will be ready to present to all the Island selectmen on Dec. 1.

"We met with the transportation subcommittee recently," high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said Wednesday. "We were able to reallocate the transportation costs and it came out very well for the high school."

Earlier in the budget process, Mrs. Regan had worried the high school budget would jump to $14 million due to a $210,000 revenue loss stemming from fallout with the school bus leases.

Under the previous school transportation system, the high school leased busses to an independent company to run; but days before school started this fall, the high school and up-Island school committees voted to allow the superintendent's office to manage the school busses.

As the high school moves toward a final budget, Ms. Tierney is working on different ways to levy school assessments for the cost of transportation. When transportation was under contract with an outside vendor, each school paid per run and also a certain amount for maintenance and fuel.

Now that the superintendent's office is managing the transportation system Ms. Tierney said the maintenance of the buses should be paid for strictly by the districts that own the buses, because the state will reimburse them for the cost.

As the high school rounds out its budget, administrators have finally been able to put some hard numbers on fixed costs like gas, utilities, heating, electricity and water - all of which have jumped in the last few months. These are parts of the budget which cannot be controlled, and to make up for the projected increase Mrs. Regan had considered eliminating a few positions when teachers retired; but as the transportation costs finally began to drop she was able to reinstate a few cuts she had asked for earlier.

"We're going to plug those things back in," she said. "That's what we are going to be working with next week. If the budget stays at just about a 3.5 per cent increase or under we are willing to go ahead."