Three decades ago, when Peter Palches was superintendent of the Martha’s Vineyard public schools, he approached the League of Women voters to ask if they’d be interested in evaluating the structure of the Island’s public schools system.
“We do not get involved in controversial affairs,” was the response, Mr. Palches recalled Sunday afternoon in a speech at the Howes House in West Tisbury.
This year, he’s asked the League to reconsider.
In a talk Sunday, Mr. Palches and the current superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss, told the League that regionalizing the Vineyard schools would save administrative costs and allow more funds to go to services with direct educational impact.
“Rather than spending money on doing things five times, we can get more dollars behind youngsters,” Mr. Weiss said.
In the current system, there are five different school districts, including four elementary schools and one regional high school. Each school has its own budget, school committee, and administrative support. Each has its own grant application process, and payroll. Each also has its own curricular oversight team, called the school advisory committee.
Curriculum is not standardized Islandwide and some kids are better prepared in some areas than others when they move on to high school. “In many ways, it’s like herding cats,” Mr. Weiss said.
Spanish is taught as a second language at all of the schools, but to varying age groups. This year, the Edgartown School offered algebra to its eighth graders in a pilot program; the other schools will catch up next year.
Consolidating the administrative leadership would save time and money, Mr. Weiss said.
The school lunch programs require vast amounts of paperwork which, if done regionally, could be streamlined. Further, the roughly $90 million worth of school facilities are managed by principals who generally have little experience with facilities management.
Mr. Weiss pointed to his paycheck as an example of improved efficiency with a regionalizing measure. While Mr. Palches used to receive a paycheck from each school district, Mr. Weiss receives just one.
Still, despite efforts to order sanitary products in bulk, the Island schools still order six different kinds of toilet paper, as the individual schools have their preferences and unique toilet paper holders, Mr. Weiss said.
The idea of regionalizing the school system has surfaced many times over the years. Some people have opposed the concept because they’d like to maintain what they consider to be local control, Mr. Palches explained.
Still, he encouraged the League not to shy away from the topic as they had in the past.
“The very act of looking at a difficult problem and walking away from it is a statement, why bother? Let a sleeping dog lie,” Mr. Palches said. He said this pattern set a poor example for the children of the district.
Audience members spoke in favor of regionalization.
“I understand the mentality of territorial property but I think it’s about time that we had one Martha’s Vineyard school system,” said June Manning. “It’s too much redundancy.”
Robert Tankard, former principal and current school committee member in Tisbury, agreed. “There has been a lot of conversation regarding regionalization, but now is the time for us to move forward,” he said.
Mr. Weiss will step down at the end of the upcoming school year, and he expressed concerns that the position would not be attractive to prospective applicants.
The superintendent must attend all meetings of the six school committees, presenting a considerable time commitment.
“We need to find a way to make the job realistic and not just for that one person, but for all the people who work in the office, for all the people who have to coordinate with them, for all the school committee members,” Mr. Weiss said. “It’s a task of coordination and communication that has been made more difficult by the way we operate.”
League member Dr. Lorna Andrade estimated that less than a third of Islanders understand how the Vineyard schools operate. “To empower people you need to educate them,” she said. “We need to broaden the discussion.”
In an ideal world, Mr. Palches said there would be one school board with five members, and one Islandwide tax rate for school costs. Schools would serve Island residents from preschool through the junior college level, he said.
“We have an outstanding school system,“ Mr. Weiss said. “If we could do it better and more efficiently, we should do it.”
The League will vote at their next meeting on whether to take up regionalization as a focal issue.