Accountable for Learning

So it’s preemptive strike time in the budget season. Every year Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss has the unenviable task of getting his line items in a row before any of the towns write their budgets, meaning Dr. Weiss must plan the Island’s educational spending without knowing how much the towns’ taxpayers will give him to spend. He is rightly forecasting that no dollar will go unexamined this year.

Knowing this, the superintendent recently preemptively negotiated himself a longer contract but without the pay increase he was to be given next year. This is good deal, not only because it gives the schools as well as Mr. Weiss stability, but also because it sets a restrained tone for contract negotiations due to begin this year with teachers and other union employees.

Next Dr. Weiss took to studying up on every cost involved in the Island schools. Many of these, from health care cost increases to Project Headway preschool program costs, are mandated by the state. With myriad unavoidable expenses, administrators set on cost-cutting are tempted to view everything else as negotiable. So Dr. Weiss preemptively suggested taking the red pen to music, dance and environmental education programs.

If this idea were to proceed, up to one half of the hundreds of elementary students who learn violin, viola and cello in their recess time, who show up at seven in the morning for orchestra practice, and who perform on the big stage once a year for their parents and public, no longer would have that opportunity nor all the academic benefits that research has shown spring from it.

Likewise, more than a hundred programs from Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary would be curtailed. Maybe the ax will fall on the only kayak trip some low-income high schoolers ever can take on their home waters thanks to a special physical education class, or maybe on the third-grade pond study that promotes environmental understanding and stewardship at a young age. Felix Neck’s schools programs have grown over decades because they have great educational value. Maybe not great enough, now, to survive the era of education through management consultant spreadsheets.

Meanwhile the Yard has made a huge effort in the past three years to ask its private donors to give money to the artists in the schools program. The choreography center wants to be more than a haven for city stars, it wants to involve those experts ­— in stage combat, modern and classic dance, recently — to widen the perspective of young Islanders. The superintendent’s proposal to cut the schools’ contribution to such extraordinary opportunities seems like a slap in the face.

It all begs the question, when did offering a well-rounded, potentially inspirational education to Island kids become something Island school administrators would bargain away, particularly without a fight?

We appreciate that school officials want to be seen as fiscally responsible. We even understand that sometimes in the early stages of budget season, programs with vocal community support might be targeted just to preemptively prove to towns that some things cannot be cut without tears. But such a show, with parents battling administrators, is frankly misplaced. School administrators should show conviction in their purpose, not stage sideshows as a political strategy. They must not abandon their responsibility as defenders of the highest aims of their institutions, quality education for all.

The superintendent and school committee members should, of course, comb out any costs that do not really enhance this goal; no waste should be allowed, particularly in administration.

But likewise they must not forfeit those things that help Island children become strong scholars, solid citizens and better human beings. The task is not to pit the costs of sports against arts against help for those with special needs or newcomers who need help with English; all of these are part of educating children to do their best by themselves, their diverse community and their challenging world.

Like the students they serve, Vineyard schools are unique assets to this Island. Who will make this case to the towns if not the school leaders? There are real costs to exceptional schools, and exceptional school leaders will not allow a careless disinvestment in their future.