After heartfelt discussion about the cost of education on the Vineyard, the all-Island school committee approved a $5.4 million budget for superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss Tuesday night.
The vote was 12-2 to approve the budget. Rising costs associated with special education services, which make up the majority of the superintendent’s budget, contributed to a historic 21 per cent increase over last year.
While openly cringing at the increase, most school committee members reiterated their dedication to the Island’s education system, despite the cost.
“Most of us want our children on the Island to have the best opportunities to meet the world on the other side,” said Robert Tankard, who represents Tisbury on the committee. “If this was our child, we would mortgage our houses twice to make sure that they had what they need.”
The increase will fund a new classroom for the Bridge program, which provides education for students with intensive needs. It also pays for 10 additional educational support professionals (ESP) across the special needs programming, and covers the cost of an occupational therapist and a speech and language therapist, which both lost federal grant funding this year.
The ESP positions were originally funded through the budgets of the individual school districts.
In all, costs associated with educating those with learning disabilities add up to more than $600,000 in added expenses. The budget also allows for salary increases as well as $30,000 to fund a superintendent’s search to replace Mr. Weiss, who plans to retire in June 2015, and $25,000 for a building consultant.
After wide-ranging discussion, the Islandwide strings program, one area marked for possible savings, was again spared the budget axe.
Colleen McAndrews, representing Tisbury, advocated for the elimination of the program to offset the cost of a depleted federal grant. She said she loves music, but doesn’t see the current program as essential to public education. “In my mind, this program is a privilege,” she said of the strings program, which costs the Island about $156,000.
Ms. McAndrews collected data from several Island schools about student retention in the strings program, and found that the majority of students do not continue with strings throughout grade school. “This is about spending our money effectively, this is about our programs being used for the best bang for the buck?” she said.
Michael Marcus from West Tisbury echoed some of the criticism of the program, saying that Chilmark students had only received two lessons in strings since the beginning of the school year, and did not receive their instruments until October. “I am concerned about the way that it’s run,” he said.
Nancy Jephcote, a strings teacher, said the children in that town are taught on Mondays, and often miss because of national holidays.
Mr. Weiss presented three versions of the budget, but said he only supported his original proposal. At last week’s meeting, committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd, who ultimately opposed the budget, challenged Mr. Weiss to reduce his proposed increases by half. Mr. Weiss presented the version to the board which he titled Skipper’s Budget Reduction, suggesting it was inadequate.
That version cut the overall increase from nearly $1 million to $500,000.
“It would mean the diminution of the programs we put in place to serve the youngsters that we have,” Mr. Weiss said.
In the end the committee agreed and approved the original budget intact.
District-specific costs show that the up-Island districts will see the greatest hike in their portion of the shared services budget, a 28 per cent increase over last year. Oak Bluffs will pay 21 per cent more than last year, Tisbury will pay 18 per cent more and Edgartown will see an increase of about 21 per cent over last year. The high school pays the smallest portion of the budget because the special education increases affect only elementary school students.