Finance leaders in West Tisbury sounded an alarm this week over the up-Island regional school district budget, saying that the current budget as written is not sustainable over time given the constraints of Proposition 2 1/2, the state tax cap.
The latest version of the operating budget, slated for a vote in January, is just over $10 million, an 8.2 per cent increase over last year. The school district includes the West Tisbury and Chilmark Schools which serves the three up-Island towns.
“We are really alarmed,” said Greg Orcutt, a member of the finance committee in West Tisbury, speaking to the school board on Monday. “We are extremely concerned, not only over the percentage, but the amount . . . this is going to be a very big pill for people to swallow.”
Increases in the West Tisbury assessment from the school budget alone for next year will have a significant impact even if no other department requires increases, town accountant Bruce Stone told the school committee. Clarifying his remarks later to the Gazette, Mr. Stone explained that because the levy limit rises independently from the actual tax levy and West Tisbury has kept its budget increases under what is allowable for the past several years, it has built up what is known as excess capacity. “This means the town could absorb a substantial increase in its tax levy this year without requiring an actual override vote, but would have its excess capacity significantly reduced going forward,” he said in an email.
Much of the increase in the school budget can be tracked to a rise in the cost of special needs services, included in the superintendent’s budget. The up-Island district’s share of the superintendent’s shared services budget, approved by the All-Island School Committee last month and $1 million more than last year, is up 28 per cent, the largest share of any district.
The services are in compliance with state requirements which demand that each student be educated well, no matter the challenges. School districts must show that they are filling all the obligations of each student’s individual education plan (IEP), but they are not given additional funding to do so.
Both school committee members and finance leaders voiced their frustration this week at the cost of compliance.
“It seems to me that if the state is mandating these programs, aren’t they responsible for helping us?” Mr. Orcutt asked.
Committee member Dan Cabot agreed.
“It is really taxation without representation,” he said. He added, “It is especially hard for small communities like ours because we don’t have any clout. We don’t have a way to lobby the legislature about this.”
Finance leaders urged the committee to reevaluate the proposed budget, which they said will have a significant tax impact on families living on fixed incomes.
The budget also includes $100,000 for renovations to the Chilmark school roof, as well as $50,000 in enrichment program funding, which was added at the last meeting.
Roxane Ackerman, who represents Aquinnah, proposed reopening the superintendent’s budget and cutting from it.
“We can do better than what we have done,” she said. “We really have to be a whole lot more responsible.”
But others at the table disagreed, saying it conflicted with the typical course of action.
School committee member Michael Marcus again proposed eliminating the Spanish program, as he did last month, but his motion was defeated.
Committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd presented a series of cuts that he said would save the district more than $400,000. They included charging the other schools for their share of the cost of the buses, reducing non-union administrative salary increases from three per cent to one per cent, and eliminating the district secretary position.
By the end of the meeting, the school committee voted to cut the proposed secretary position from the district budget, but a vote to approve that version of the budget failed.
The committee meets again on Jan. 6 at 8:15 a.m. at the West Tisbury school to discuss the budget.
This story has been corrected from an earlier version which reported that the budget as it is written now will force West Tisbury into an override this year.