Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss unveiled an eye-opening $3.5 million budget for the coming fiscal year last week, a 20 per cent increase over 2006.

The bulk of the hike in the superintendent’s budget can be tracked to a greatly expanded special needs program for elementary school children, negotiated teacher pay raises from last year and a new position of facilities manager for school buildings. The superintendent is asking for total additional funds approaching $600,000 over last year’s $2.9 million budget.

The budget went before the All-Island School Committee late last week and will be presented again for approval on Nov. 6. If approved, the additional expenses will be shared among the schools and individual town budgets.

Mr. Weiss first alerted the school committee to prospective increases at the beginning of the month, emphasizing the requirements for special needs students.

Project Headway, a special needs program for preschoolers, is in its 20th year. State rules limit class sizes to seven and when student’s numbers shot to eleven this year Mr. Weiss was forced to scrounge from his existing budget to meet additional staff costs. With two more children due to join the program soon, this extra class will now become a permanent budgetary fixture, he said.

A special education elementary program will also be introduced this year at an initial annual cost of $180,000. This is the first time more than one child with significant disabilities has left Project Headway requiring ongoing special learning programs.

Mr. Weiss said this is part of an international trend. “Some people point to better diagnosis, others believe it’s to do with new things in the atmosphere,” he said yesterday. “We don’t really know, we just know that children exist with more significant needs and we have to deal with that.”

Costs from newly-negotiated teacher contracts are also being absorbed into the budget. The increases to salaries and benefits were finalized at the end of 2006, following lengthy negotiations and represent across-the board pay raises for teachers in all schools.

The proposed role for a school-wide facilities manager to caretake the 600,000 feet of Island school property would centralize physical upkeep at Island schools for the first time. The superintendent wants to fund the position with a salary and benefit package totaling just under $100,000

Mr. Weiss had proposed the position last year, but when school committee members balked at the resulting five per cent increase in the overall budget, he removed the position from the final budget, noting that the burden on towns seemed too great. But at the time he said: “I am committed to getting that in place.”

This year Mr. Weiss said he feels the issue has become critical. “The buildings are getting older, these are complex systems and we don’t have expertise,” he said, adding: “I have absolutely no doubt that the expense is worth it.”

With 30 years of experience as a school administrator, Mr. Weiss admits he has never looked for a budget hike of this magnitude and he said he does not expect a unanimous decision on the proposal.

“The past two budgets have passed relatively easily, though I’ve never put forward anything this significant before,” he said. “I’m sure they will review it carefully and make a decision appropriate to the needs of the Island.”