Speaking bluntly, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Margaret (Peg) Regan told a large gathering of Island selectmen and finance committee members last week that if the school does not have a budget approved by July 1, it will mean salary freezes, hiring freezes, no new buses and a halt on scheduled maintenance at the school.
If two of four Vineyard towns fail to approve the high school budget at upcoming special town meetings, state officials will likely require the school to operate under last year's budget on a month-by-month basis until a new budget is approved. This means the school would have about $356,000 less to spend in the coming fiscal year. If a new budget is still not in place by Dec. 1, the state would take over and impose its own budget on the school.
This has left school administrators puzzling over how to save $356,000 if the 2008 budget fails to pass.
At a meeting of Island selectmen and finance committee members last Thursday night Mrs. Regan spoke out about the controversy over the high school budget, which was fueled this year when an old state law was finally enforced that governs regional school assessments. Under the law if a school district divides its assessments using any formula other than the state formula, unanimous approval is required among member towns. The Vineyard high school, formed by a regional agreement in the 1950s, has always divided its assessments based on enrollment. But at their annual town meeting in April voters in Oak Bluffs forced the issue by taking steps to amend the regional assessment for their town downward.
The result was that the high school budget was sent back to the drawing board. The six town assessments now have been divided using the state formula; four towns will take up the high school budget at special town meetings this month. West Tisbury holds its meeting tonight. Approval is still needed from at least two Vineyard towns in order for the high school to have a budget by July 1.
Mrs. Regan told town officials last week that if there was no controversy, she still would not support the state-prescribed formula. But given that using the so-called statutory formula is the last chance for the school to secure a budget before July 1, she said she hopes towns will approve the changed assessments for this year, with an eye toward developing a method next year on which more towns can agree.
Teachers, secretaries and custodians are due to receive union contract pay increases in the coming fiscal year even if the budget does not gain the needed approval.
Mrs. Regan said raises would be put on hold for nonunion staff, including the principal, assistant principals, director of guidance, special education director, technology director and athletic director.
In addition, teachers who retire or take a leave of absence would not be replaced, Mrs. Regan said.
"It is critical for us that we be able to keep the teaching staff that's been requested," she told the Gazette following the Thursday night meeting. "We did not request any additional staff. If we don't replace departing people, we will be reduced in force."
She said she expects between two and four faculty members to leave before the next school year, including a math teacher and a Rebecca Amos Institute teacher.
"The third thing that I have real concerns about is not going forward to purchase the buses and not going forward to award a bid," she said. "It concerns me that we would be running busses that are at least eight or nine years old next year."
The high school has received bids for a fleet of new busses, but the school attorney has advised that no bid be awarded until a budget is in place.
Scheduled maintenance on school buildings and property would be put on hold as well.
Roughly $200,000 is planned for capital maintenance, new to the operating budget this year. In past years, maintenance costs had been taken out of the school's excess and deficiencies fund, but a consultant advised the school to create a long-term capital improvement plan and put capital spending in the operating budget, reserving excess and deficiency funds for emergencies.
At the meeting in the Vineyard Transit Authority conference room last Thursday, schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss told selectmen and finance committee members that if the 2008 budget does not gain approval from two more Island towns (Aquinnah and Oak Bluffs have already approved sufficient money for their assessments) he will ask the state for permission to use the 2008 budget in the interim - rather than the budget from fiscal year 2007.
He said the issue is not about the budget as a whole, but simply how it is divided.
"If you look at the process, the question has not been, ‘Is the budget appropriate?' The question has been, ‘Is the assessment appropriate?' " Mr. Weiss said.
Reaction from selectmen at the meeting was mixed. Some were quiet, others said they still felt unsure what to recommend to their constituents. Two Tisbury selectmen, chairman Thomas Pachico and Tristan Israel, said they plan to recommend that voters not approve the high school budget.
"I've got four kids. When they mess something up, I make them fix it," Mr. Pachico said. "Let [the state] come down here and figure it out. The school is not going to suffer one bit."
But Mrs. Regan cautioned against appealing to the state for a solution, rather than resolving the issue among themselves.
"I just think there are too many good minds here not to come up with a solution," she said.
Encouraged by the school committee, selectmen and finance committee members agreed to form a working group to develop an assessment method that every town can agree on for next year - possibly by reworking the long-used regional agreement.
Selectmen and finance committees in each town will appoint one member to the committee. Mr. Weiss said he would call the first meeting later this month.