Dwindling state aid and rising insurance costs are fueling a regional high school budget that will cost Island taxpayers $11.6 million next year.
The budget, unanimously endorsed Monday night by the regional high school committee, is nine per cent higher than this year's, but school leaders say the price hikes for educating the Island's high school students could have been much steeper.
"We started at a 16-plus percentage increase," said committee member Robert Tankard, who chaired the budget subcommittee. "We carved away items that would not affect programs for children."
West Tisbury taxpayers will be the hardest hit, saddled with a 14 per cent hike in their assessment for the high school. But it was officials from Oak Bluffs and Tisbury who lobbied school committee members last month, urging them to submit a budget with a single-digit percentage increase.
"We were concerned about this budget," Oak Bluffs selectman Richard Combra told the school committee last week at an All-Island Selectmen's meeting. "As it is, I believe we're clearly challenged to meet this assessment . . . but the high school administration has done a respectable job of reducing this assessment."
Two big factors drove the budget process. After three years of hefty state funding packages for education, school officials learned this fall that the money stream was running dry, thanks to a $2 billion gap in the state budget. For the Island high school, that translated into a $370,000 cut in state aid.
Making matters worse, insurance costs jumped almost $260,000. And with more high school-aged students opting to attend the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, the regional high school faced an additional $104,000 in reimbursement costs.
All told, the number crunchers at the regional high school walked into budget season looking at a $730,000 hole in the balance sheets for next year. The gloomy financial picture comes at a time when enrollment is actually expected to drop next year.
The official census currently stands at 806 students. According to Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, next year's enrollment is projected to be 792.
Also looming over the budget work is the fact that the regional high school is in the midst of being reaccredited, a process that happens once every 10 years.
"In eras like the one we're in, it's very important to remain cautious so we don't undermine the level of quality it took years to build," Mr. Cash told selectmen last week. "We're not in danger of losing accreditation, but we want to maintain what we have."
Less than a month ago, school committee members presented a draft budget that called for cutting the dean of students position and instituting a fee-based system for some extracurricular activities and sports.
That same budget would have cut funding for the Saturday morning detention program, the school's deterrent for chronically tardy students.
But all those items have now been restored to the budget, which instead trimmed from other requested amounts, including $40,000 from computer spending and $61,000 from the curriculum revision line item. In all, the budget subcommittee along with regional high school principal Peg Regan cut more than $407,000 from the proposed budget.
"We are about at bone," said Mr. Tankard. "At nine per cent, we haven't cut personnel or programs. That would have cost us dearly."
To emphasize the point last week, a large video screen in the high school library displayed a moving image of scissors cutting into a dollar bill. It was the first slide in a lengthy Power Point presentation led by Mr. Cash, detailing the budget.
School leaders rejected funding requests that would have expanded staffing in the school's alternative evening program and increased course offerings in Portuguese.
But amid all the cutting, the new budget did make room for a half-time math teacher to reduce class sizes and a second year of funding for a special needs department chairmanship which was created this year.
Helping to offset the budget increases, school committee members decided to dip into revenue from the school's excess and deficiency fund.
The fund cannot exceed five per cent of the school's annual operating budget, which is currently just over $11 million. With roughly $600,000 in that account, school leaders decided to tap the fund for $106,500 and apply it to next year's budget.
School committee member Tim Dobel said that while he was concerned about using this special fund this year, he believed his committee would face an easier budget scenario next year.
"Between nine and 11 senior staff members are retiring at the end of next year. These are the highest paid people on staff, and some may not be replaced," he said. "You do the math."