Vineyard skateboarders finally got a nod of approval Monday night from the keepers of the 150-foot square of land they see as a potential home for an Island skate park.
The regional school committee voted unanimously this week to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the town of Oak Bluffs to manage a skateboard park on high school property along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.
"The time has come. We need to make a move. We've listened to selectmen; we've listened to the town," said school committee member Leslie Baynes.
The approval follows a unanimous endorsement from Oak Bluffs residents April 9 to assume responsibility for the skateboard park.
"[The town of Oak Bluffs vote] was not only made unanimously, it would say it was made wholeheartedly. I can say freely the town embraces doing this for the kids," said school committee member and Oak Bluffs resident Tim Dobel.
While the Oak Bluffs selectmen, park commissioners and police offered to assume liability and regulation of the skateboard park in February, school committee members struggled with the decision to chisel away any more of the 22 acres of school property across the road from the high school. The ice arena and Martha's Vineyard Community Services already sit on the property, and for months, the school committee juggled land requests from skatepark enthusiasts and aquatic center proponents along with considering the potential need for a middle school.
"It's been a real group effort - a lot of people who helped us get through the political process. Now we can move on to more tangible things like designing the park," said skateboard park proponent Elaine Barse after Monday's meeting. The group has already secured $41,000, including $21,000 contributed from Island towns. Ms. Barse estimates they need $25,000 more to complete the project.
The school committee also voted to accept an offer of 284 school day hours and 72 after-school team practice hours yearly in exchange for leasing up to five acres of school property for an aquatic center. While the committee agreed some years ago to reserve five acres of school property across the road for an aquatic center, aquatic center proponents and the land use subcommittee have been haggling over the exact number of pool hours for students.
The aquatic center board agreed to renegotiate hours each year and will charge no more than 75 per cent of the hourly rate if the high school needs additional hours.
"I like the plan. It seems to be able to offer us what we foresee we will need," said high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan, noting an increase in potential needs once the school builds a competitive swimming program.
Aquatic center board member Larry Greenberg said they are considering organizing under a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) charter.
While Ms. Regan and physical education teacher Anne Lemenager said the number of hours would be sufficient for the students' needs, some school committee members weren't so sure.
"This is where the rubber hits the road for our kiddies. We arrived at these numbers a minute before midnight. Is this going to do the job?" Mr. Baynes said. "I just want to make sure it meets our needs."
"I feel much more comfortable with the numbers right now," said Anna Alley, chairman of the land use subcommittee.
"These numbers are not arbitrary. They are adequate given the limitations of our school day," Ms. Lemenager said.
In terms of a high school team's needs, Mr. Greenberg said, "It takes three years to get from club to varsity. To hammer out those exact hours is not something we can know. But it's what the Y does well."
"We don't want to take so many hours that they fail. We want them to be viable. If too many hours are taken away during prime time, they go bust and we get no pool," Ms. Alley added.
In other school business, Island Insurance Company agent Steve Schwab warned committee members that the school's $1 million liability insurer - Legion Insurance Company - is under Pennsylvania state-mandated "rehabilitation." The company, which covers some 180 municipalities in Massachusetts alone, fell below Pennsylvania's financial security standards. The school's coverage assumes liability for incidents up to $1 million, including transportation-related accidents but not property-related incidents. The term with Legion Insurance Company officially ends July 1, and the municipality group is already negotiating with several other companies.
In the meantime, Legion's claim payments will be suspended. The school currently has no pending claims. Ms. Schwab said the state of Pennsylvania has a secure plan for addressing companies under rehabilitation and absorbing claim shortfalls.
"It's a good safety net though not complete. It's not a 100 per cent guarantee that nothing will happen. It's just good we're not in the beginning of the school term," Mr. Schwab explained this week.
A request from Ms. Regan to transfer funds, eliminating one post in the high school art department and hiring a special education administrator, prompted a long discussion about the school budget, the special education program and the art department.
Ms. Regan said she had attempted to reconfigure programs without adding any more staff.
"[Special education] is where the numbers are; art is where they are not," Ms. Regan said. "It's a recommendation solely based on numbers."
Ms. Regan said currently 24 per cent of the high school students are on education plans. Next year, that number will jump to 26 per cent. Ms. Regan plans to use the new special education position to head instructional sharing with mainstream teachers for special needs students.
"We've relied on resource and special education teachers to be the touchstone. There needs to be more sharing. It's critical," Ms. Regan said.
After students signed up for classes next academic year, the interest in art dropped enough to eliminate an entire teacher's class load. Ms. Regan said an increase in electives offered in the English, history and science departments explains the loss of interest in art classes.
Committee members rallied in defense of the art program.
"I think with the right person in there, it would thrive. There are lots of kids we could maybe engage," committee member Gail Palacios said.
"This is a knee jerk reaction. In the library, if someone doesn't take a book out for a week, we don't close it," Mr. Baynes said.
Some committee members questioned how administration couldn't have anticipated the greater need in special education before voting on the budget for next year.
"This seems like something that we could have foreseen. It seems easy to put your finger on," said committee member Amy Tierney.
"When I presented the budget, I was asked if there were new positions. The question was asked, and the question was answered," said committee chairman Ralph Friedman.
"If we have a need, we have to decide if it's an honest need. We can't be so black and white. We must be prepared to make adjustments," Ms. Palacios said.
Daniel Seklecki, director of student support services for the public schools, said six full-time employees serve the needs of 180 high school students on individualized education plans.
"We have a handful serving these kids. We've been loathe to service special education. We look ordinary compared with other comprehensive high schools. We've been slower to catch up," Mr. Seklecki said.
"We've always addressed genuine need. We have the resources to deal with it. That's the beauty of our system. I don't want to take it from art. I hope we can find a creative way to minimize budget impact this year," Mr. Dobel said.
In the end, the committee voted to create a new special education position and not to eliminate the art department position.