The All-Island School Committee approved an 8.8 per cent increase in the superintendent’s budget for the 2014 fiscal year.
The committee voted 10-2, with Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah and Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter of West Tisbury opposing.
In his presentation to the committee last month, superintendent James H. Weiss admitted that the budget jump was steep.
“The budget increase is significantly higher than I would have liked,” he said at the meeting.
The increasing demand for special education services on the Island accounts for the large jump in the budget. The special education services cost 61 per cent of the entire $4.4 million budget.
“We are doing a wonderful job educating youngsters who have needs of one kind or another, who in individual buildings would not be cost-effective, and in many cases would end up in off-Island programs,” said Mr. Weiss. “There are quality programs on the Island where youngsters can go home at the end of the day to their families and be part of the Island.”
The growing programs required funding for three new assistants, one for Project Headway (a preschool program for children with disabilities) and two for the Bridge program (for elementary school children with disabilities), as well as a half-time speech and language therapist.
Funding to pay for substitutes in the shared special education programs has also been added to the budget, money which had not been included in past budgets.
Funding for mandatory transportation services for the programs leaped from $110,000 to $160,000.
Mr. Weiss compared the per pupil cost in the shared special education programs with the per pupil cost of off-Island residential placement. The cost of a student in the project headway program, the most expensive of the programs, is $38,514, while the cost for the current elementary student in residential placement is projected to be $88,536.
The budget also includes $25,000 for salary increases for central office administrators. Mr. Weiss said the search for a new director of student support services this summer brought to surface the low salaries of the administrators in competition with other similar school districts. Mr. Weiss presented the committee with a salary survey of central office administrators in Nantucket and Cape Cod towns, with the Island on the low end in almost every scenario. The salary for assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Laurie Halt will increase from $94,554 to $101,900; salary for school business administrator Amy Tierney will increase from $99,807 to $107,551; the salary for the SPED director, which currently has Donna Lowell-Bettencourt serving as the interim, will increase from $105,000 to $115,000.
“I think you are trying to do too much,” said Mr. Manter. “You are trying to address new salaries and new employees,” said Mr. Manter. “I’d rather see a budget at a five per cent increase with a facilities manager as part of that.”
Mr. Weiss responded: “The question is, what in this budget do we cut? Let’s say I don’t employ those three assistants. What do I do with those students then?”
Other committee members voiced support for the budget.
“I think it’s been made pretty clear when you talk about adding the new employees how much it is going to cost if we didn’t add them,” said David Rossi of Edgartown. “Not hiring those people could cost us a great deal more. Education is expensive. If these needs didn’t come along we wouldn’t be spending the money, but they’re here and we are dealing with it here. As far as the salaries, we are below our neighbors off-Island. We are on the Vineyard and we have to be competitive.”
The proposed position for a school-wide facilities manager once again was not included in the budget.
Mr. Weiss said he chose not to add funding for the position again in this year’s budget because the estimated $113,000 salary would have brought the budget increase to almost 11.6 per cent.
The approved budget costs will be divided among the school districts, with the high school paying 20 per cent of the cost. The up-Island regional school district, Edgartown school district, Oak Bluffs school district, and Tisbury school district pay a per centage based on enrollment.