Rising costs of special education services and cuts to federal grants are driving a dramatic increase in education spending for Vineyard schools in the coming fiscal year.
Schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss presented an operating budget to the all-Island school committee Wednesday night totaling $5.4 million.
It’s an increase of 21 per cent over last year’s budget, the greatest percentage increase in recent memory.
The largest hikes, accounting for more than half of the budget increase, come in costs associated with the special education programs.
Growing numbers of students with learning disabilities place further demands on the teaching and support staff, transportation and summer programming required to meet their needs, adding up to a $451,000 increase in projected costs.
The Bridge program will add another classroom to its two existing classes, which serve children identified on the autism spectrum and those with other intensive needs. The additional class will not join the other two at the Edgartown School, but will be located in a different school, Mr. Weiss said.
“These are youngsters who are in our program now” who will need special services next year, he said.
Another $281,081 will cover the salaries of 10 full-time educational support professionals (ESPs), who act as classroom aides for children with learning or mobility challenges. The salaries for these positions were paid with circuit breaker funds from each individual district for this school year. (Circuit breaker funds are state reimbursements which schools receive for extraordinary special education costs incurred in one year, and are reimbursed in the following year.)
Costs to educate the students in a summer school or extended year program are also expected to increase, in the amount of $13,000.
Special education costs have been trending upward for the last several years, but this year, federal funding reductions also contributed significantly to the budget increase, Mr. Weiss said. Expected grant shortfalls in special education total $189,923 this year, and will have to be covered by local funding. “In the special education area, this grant lost about nine per cent,” he said. Funds to pay for a full-time occupational therapist and a speech and language pathologist are covered in circuit breaker funds this year, but will move to the operating budget next year. “It is an obligation and mandate that we provide these services, but it’s also the right thing to do . . . It’s what we do to educate our youngsters on our Island. It’s that whole package of education that our schools are now responsible for.”
Mr. Weiss said he expects the federal education grants to continue to decrease, and suggested that the school districts move away from reliance on federal monies.
“I can see that shift from that federal grant to our operating budget happening on a more regular basis,” he said.
As a thought experiment, Mr. Weiss entertained the idea of closing the Bridge program altogether, and sending children off-Island to receive special needs services.
“Each district could try to recreate their own program, or we might say, let’s send these youngsters to the Cape Cod Collaborative,” he said.
The per-pupil cost is $43,000 in the Bridge program. If the Bridge program did not exist, likely the children would travel to Osterville daily to receive services through the Cape Cod Collaborative, Mr. Weiss said. “I don’t know about you, but if I had a five-year-old youngster with autism, I’m not sure I’d like to have that youngster make the round trip each day,” he said. Instead, for seven years the school district has provided educational opportunities a short distance from home.
“I know that going forward, a budget increase of 21 per cent is outrageous,” Mr. Weiss said at the close of his presentation. “What I think we need to do is look at this, and say are there things we can do without, are there things we can delay, are there things that we have to have? Needs versus wants.”
Oak Bluff finance committee chairman Steve Auerbach wondered if more funding might be found at the state level. But Mr. Weiss said the governor’s awards in education do not typically benefit districts like the Vineyard, where there is already a large tax base to support education.
Colleen McAndrews, a committee member representing Tisbury, said she saw room for cutting at the strings program, part of the Islandwide enrichment programs covered by the shared services budget. “The strings program is obviously one area where it’s privilege,” she said, adding later: “I don’t see it as essential to educating our children.”
While the majority of the superintendent’s budget benefits children with special needs, the enrichment programs benefit the general student population.
“You may remember that a couple of years ago, we proposed eliminating the Felix Neck, the Yard and the Strings program, but we didn’t get very far,” Mr. Weiss said. “But we are now at a point where we have to make difficult decisions.”
School committee member Michael Marcus said he didn’t feel so grim about Mr. Weiss’s presentation.
“I am not so gloomy about the whole thing,” he said. “It’s a little bit of it is what it is, and costs go up and we provide a level of service and we provide an outstanding level of service to the kids of our community, and I am proud that we do it . . . I have no intention of cutting back on the level of quality of the product that we put out in our community for education.”
The committee attempted to cut funding to the strings program in 2009, but money was returned to the budget following a public outcry to save it.
School committee member Robert Lionette suggested that the school district embrace the rise in students requiring special needs as an opportunity to evaluate the programs and improve them if necessary.
Incoming director of student support services Philip Campbell, present at the meeting Wednesday, said he planned to explore the use of grant funding and reimbursement strategies when he begins work in three weeks. He said he’d also look at the existing programs with a critical eye. He said he’s been part of initiatives to change or reduce costs of services in other school districts.
“New eyes get a different view and that is always positive,” Mr. Weiss said.
The superintendent will retire in June of 2015, and has included $30,000 in the budget to fund an extensive search for his replacement. The search for Mr. Weiss cost the school district $25,000 nine years ago when he was hired. “You need to do the job correctly so that you can have leadership for the Island,” Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Weiss’s proposal to create an all-Island school buildings facilities manager was removed from the budget after some “soul searching,” he wrote in the cover letter to the budget. He sought to fund that position in the past two operating budgets as well. Instead, the budget includes funds to cover facilities consulting services at each school.
Mr. Weiss excluded costs for much-needed work on the central office building on Pine street in Vineyard Haven from the budget, but hopes to find some way to pay for repairs to the electric service and heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, valued at $50,000. “I’m concerned that if it’s a cold winter, our heating system won’t make it,” he said.
The committee is expected to vote on the budget at their monthly meeting on Nov. 19.