The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district committee this week reviewed a draft $14.3 million operating budget for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, a 4.7 per cent increase over last year.

The draft budget was presented to Island selectmen at a special meeting this week; the school committee is set to vote on certifying the budget at a meeting Monday night. A majority of Island towns must approve the budget at their annual town meetings in the spring.

"It is an unbelievable process to get this budget together, and I feel very good about it going forward and presenting it to the selectmen," regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan told the school committee this week. "It's reflected a lot of hard thinking and good thinking."

The lion's share of the budget - 66 per cent - is for instruction, including teacher salaries. Because contracts for teachers and non administrative staff will expire this year and must be renegotiated, the final numbers for salaries are still subject to change. Negotiations typically take place over the summer in a contract year.

The school committee voted this week to use $250,000 from the school excess and deficiencies fund to reduce town assessments. Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury both requested a zero per cent increase in the school district's 2008 budget, but Mrs. Regan and members of the budget subcommittee said this was unrealistic and imprudent.

Rises in insurance rates, building maintenance costs, utility costs and contract negotiations have all contributed to the need for a conservative increase in the budget, administrators said. Transportation costs decreased this year. "It's been a help in terms of money," Mrs. Regan said, adding: "But we've also taken on all of the headaches of running a bus company."

Town assessments were calculated using the traditional enrollment-based formula, although a state wealth-based formula could potentially replace that formula this spring, depending on town meeting votes. Amelia (Amy) Tierney, assistant superintendent for business affairs, said she did not calculate assessments based on the wealth formula because the final formula numbers won't be available until January.

Projected town assessments for next year total $11.3 million (an increase of 3.2 per cent) and break down as follows in round numbers: Aquinnah, $382,000 (9.8 per cent increase); Chilmark, $368,000 (14.6 per cent increase); Edgartown, $2.8 million (3.7 per cent increase); Oak Bluffs, $3 million (5.3 per cent increase); Tisbury, $2.6 million (2.9 per cent increase); West Tisbury, $2.2 million (2.3 per cent decrease).

The school district will receive nearly $3.6 million in reimbursements next year. Chapter 70 state school aid went up by about $147,000 to $2.8 million, while transportation reimbursement went down by roughly $350,000 to $196,000. Vineyard schools superintendent James Weiss said he expects transportation reimbursement to rise again in coming years, since the school will be spending more. The school has a five-year, $1.5 million bond to replace its bus fleet, which has a relatively small impact on the 2008 budget but will cost over $300,000 each year after that.

At the meeting with selectmen Wednesday Mrs. Regan said she would like to create a stabilization fund to offset major capital projects like the busses. The fund would require approval from a majority of the six Island towns. A 2005 state law allows regional school districts to create such funds using excess and deficiency money.

The budget for fixed operating costs, including employee benefits and liability insurance, will increase by roughly five per cent next year and will account for 17 per cent of the budget. Operating costs and maintenance will increase 12 per cent - largely due to a new capital improvement plan - and account for 8.7 per cent of the budget overall. The improvement plan budgets ongoing maintenance rather than tapping the excess fund every year.

Although the population of school-aged children on the Island has declined, Mrs. Regan cautioned against making presumptions about commesurate budget decreases. State and federal standards and requirements for schools continue to increase, without giving extra aid, she said.

"The stakes, in terms of accountability for teachers and kids, are getting higher and higher," Mrs. Regan said. The present freshman class must pass a science MCAS test in addition to the English, writing and math components in order to graduate. The current eighth grade must pass a U.S. history MCAS test in addition to those subjects to graduate." The population rate is also unpredictable, she said. "As we build affordable housing, how will that affect our elementary schools and our high school?" she added.