Principal Steven Nixon’s decision to cut five and two-fifths positions at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, potentially an unprecedented measure, met with very little opposition at a public hearing on the school budget Monday night.
The hearing was attended by about 50 Vineyarders.
If the school committee votes to certify the budget at its meeting Monday, as now appears likely, the $16.5 million budget, a 1.7 per cent increase on 2008, will reflect a significant tightening of purse strings.
“This is the first time anyone actually RIFed,” said Mr. Nixon after the meeting, referring to a term for union layoffs, reduction in force (RIF).
The cuts are to the following areas: English and math, assistant in special education, custodial, driver’s education, and two-fifths of a bus driving position.
The principal’s proposed cuts are less drastic than might appear at first glance.
It is only in the special education assistant and custodial positions that staff stand to be fired at the end of the year. And neither cut has been assigned to a teacher yet, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said.
All other positions are either contracted to end in June, or do not amount to a full position.
Both the English and math positions are one-year contracts, Mr. Nixon said.
“Those in the position may have hoped to stay on and in other years we may have kept the programs,” he said. “It will increase class sizes by two or three students,” he said.
Jim Maseda will lose his job as special education and athletic transportation coordinator in June but will retain 60 per cent of his position in his role as assistant athletic director, said Mr. Weiss. Mr. Maseda also will retain benefits such as health insurance. Mr. Weiss said Mr. Maseda is aware of the cut but had not yet informed him whether he will stay in the athletics position.
Driver education program director John Stabile vacated his position yesterday. Mr. Stabile was in his second year and had been director of the program since its inception.
The circumstances surrounding his resignation are unclear. Mr. Stabile could not be reached for comment and Mr. Weiss refused to clarify whether, had Mr. Stabile not tendered his resignation, the school would have taken action to fire him.
“I’m just saying he resigned,” Mr. Weiss said, adding that the resignation was first discussed a month or so ago.
He would not comment further on the reasons for the resignation; Mr. Stabile was halfway through his second year in the job. Mr. Weiss did add that it was still unclear whether or not Mr. Stabile would continue in his other position as lacrosse coach next semester.
Either way, Mr. Stabile’s resignation is a separate issue from the decision to cut the position from the budget, he said.
“The decision is to keep the position for FY09 and discontinue it next year. It is a reduction,” he said.
Currently the school is advertising for the position for just the second semester, and will cut the position at the end of the school year.
Monday’s hearing, attended by teachers, committee members and parents, stood in stark contrast to last year, when a spirited crowd of over 100 left in high dudgeon at proposed cuts to the drama and music departments.
The realities of a recession, and the uncontroversial nature of the cuts themselves, may have been contributing factors to the absence of drama this time around.
For whatever reason, there was no significant discussion of the cuts. Over the past months Mr. Nixon has made financial presentations to high school and town finance committee members, emphasizing areas of frugality in the budget. Monday’s presentation had the same focus.
He spoke for almost an hour with the aid of a simple slide show comparing the high school with other schools in the state, the Cape and Islands district and Nantucket.
“We’ve stuck to basic facts. The numbers are what’s important this year,” he said.
He described the Island regional high school as the red-striped zebra of commonwealth public education institutions.
“There is no other school that matches what we are in the commonwealth. There’s not a lot of zebras but there’s no red stripes,” he said.
The high school is a comprehensive school, offering both academic and vocational programs as well as special education programs.
Mr. Nixon argued that faced with the constraints of Island living — from costs to ease of travel — the system in place is cost effective and educationally efficient. He presented a collection of statistics to illustrate the argument.
The average teacher salary is $62,406 compared to $56,745 at the Upper Cape vocational technical school, and $70,781 at Nantucket high school.
The special education graduation rate is 91.5 per cent versus 87.2 per cent on Nantucket and 84.9 per cent at the state level.
Attendance level is about average for the state — 95 versus 94.6 per cent statewide. But the dropout rate is 1.7 versus 2.5 per cent.
“This is the bang for the buck,” Mr. Nixon said, adding: “Our dropout rate is a third of the state.”
The truancy rate is comparatively extremely low: 1.0 versus a 16.4 per cent state average.
“Though I joke, we’re on an Island where can you hide?” said Mr. Nixon, a former assistant principal in charge of discipline.
He said that with declining enrollment expected to continue at the high school for at least the next three years, he will have to make instructional cuts, but that they won’t necessarily mean people losing their jobs.
“We have very,” he said, pausing for emphasis, “experienced staff. Some may be retiring in the next few years.”
He said 76 per cent of teachers are at the top step, earning the most possible salary for their position.
He said he had been questioned at public gathering spots such as Cumberland Farms about how many classes had small student numbers.
“If you ask that the school increase class size you have lost your right to complain if your SAT, MCAS scores go down,” he said. As for changing the advanced placement class sizes: “You can kiss goodbye to those advanced colleges our kids get into,” he said.
Some class sizes are kept small by state mandate, he added. For example, special education classes cannot have more than eight students to a class.
“There’s a whole slew of mandates from the state,” Mr. Nixon said.
The small size of two classes for students with behavioral problems explain the low dropout rate, he went on.
“That’s 28 kids that would probably not be at school otherwise,” he said.
This year’s high school budget is currently on its fifth draft and has changed significantly from a first draft calling for a six per cent increase on 2008.
It was down to 2.9 per cent and onto a fourth draft when Mr. Nixon and Mr. Weiss met with members of the all-Island finance committee earlier this month. Shortly following that meeting three of the six towns — West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown — had joined to call for a zero per cent increase.
Mr. Nixon said he made the other three cuts after that meeting and added that he hoped this latest budget draft will be accepted by the towns.
Achieving a zero increase means getting into areas such as sports programs, he said. A sports air transportation budget, at $17,500 for 2008, has already been removed.
Both Mr. Weiss and Mr. Nixon have explained that with union-negotiated annual salary increases and state-mandated teaching requirements, much of the budget increase is beyond their control.
“Hopefully they understand that this year any additional cuts would have a major impact,” Mr. Nixon said.