West Tisbury voters fed up with rising taxes sent a message last week at annual town meeting when they reduced their town's share of the Up-Island Regional School budget by $250,000. That message, though, is about to be stamped return-to-sender.
School committee leaders plan to bring what amounts to essentially the same budget back to voters at a special town meeting slated for May 22. But while the numbers may be largely unchanged, voters can expect a much more thorough explanation of how costs are shared by the three towns in the regional district that also includes Aquinnah and Chilmark.
"There's been a gross amount of misunderstanding about this situation, and I intend to be given the floor [at the May town meeting]," said school committee member Anna Alley. "With a better explanation, hopefully people will support the budget."
Last week, finance committee chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter pushed successfully for an amendment that lowered the town's share of school costs. The amendment passed by a mere five votes, 87-82. Mr. Manter and his board have argued since last year that the cost-sharing formulas unfairly burden West Tisbury.
His argument struck a chord with voters who were facing news of overall budget increases and a tax hike of about 25 per cent. "People were ready to be sensitive to opportunities to cut," said selectman and treasurer Cynthia Mitchell.
Plus, both Mrs. Mitchell and Mrs. Alley agreed that the timing of Mr. Manter's amendment rushed the issue to voters before school leaders could even pitch their budget to them.
"It was one of those town meeting moments that runs away with itself," said Mrs. Mitchell. "The school committee was left flat-footed and never really grabbed the reins."
But school leaders are not about to allow a repeat performance. Their job, according to Mrs. Alley, is to make sure voters understand how the region is funded. But she also added that any changes in funding formulas will take some time to implement.
The school committee has helped set up a task force to address concerns voiced by the finance committee. At one point last fall, the finance committee was lobbying for the town to leave the regional school district.
In a series of letters to school officials, Mr. Manter has objected to how the town is assessed for operational costs and capital expenses and the use of leftover funds at the end of each school year, known as excess and deficiency (E&D) funds.
According to Mr. Manter's letter from Jan. 9, the addition of students from Aquinnah and Chilmark means that more teachers and assistants need to be hired. While West Tisbury students currently account for about 80 per cent of the West Tisbury School's enrollment, "We do not think West Tisbury should be paying 80 per cent of these additional costs for being in the district," he wrote.
Mr. Manter also took issue with the use of so-called E&D funds, arguing that 80 per cent of the funds should be set aside for West Tisbury. On the issue of capital costs, Mr. Manter wrote: "It is unfair that West Tisbury has six students in the Chilmark School at a cost of $8,095 per student with a total cost of $48,500, while Chilmark pays $800 each for 49 students for a total cost of $43,300 at the West Tisbury School."
According to school documents, the formulas for calculating cost-sharing are based mostly on student enrollment percentages. At the Chilmark School, the total enrollment is 52 students with a breakdown as follows: 31 from Chilmark, 14 from Aquinnah and seven from West Tisbury. For West Tisbury taxpayers, that means shouldering 13 per cent of the Chilmark School's $379,000 operating budget.
At the West Tisbury School where total enrollment is 387, the breakdown works out to 317 students from West Tisbury, 50 from Chilmark and 20 from Aquinnah. For West Tisbury, that equals just under 82 per cent and responsibility for that portion of a $3,046,535 operating budget.
From the school's perspective, what the finance committee analysis doesn't take into account is the additional state reimbursement funding that comes to the regional district. "In the region, they get over $900,000 in revenue [from the state]," said school superintendent Kriner Cash. "They wouldn't see close to that if they stayed as a town school - maybe $300,000 or $400,000."
The regional arrangement also makes the district eligible for large reimbursements in state aid for transportation costs, Mr. Cash said. Plus, the superintendent said that a review of the cost-sharing formulas by the state department of education (DOE) found them to be fair.
On the issue of E&D funds, Mr. Cash said that in some years, Chilmark might spend more while in other years West Tisbury does. It evens out over time, he said. In terms of capital costs, the per-pupil averages that West Tisbury pays when one of its residents goes there for school is higher because of the higher building costs there. Chilmark opted not to build a larger school and receive 56 per cent in state aid.
Mrs. Alley said the school committee is willing to change some of the apportionments, but she is not sure how much difference it will make in raw numbers. "I don't think there would be a drastic change," she said.
Aquinnah and Chilmark voters have yet to take action on the school budget. Chilmark meets Monday and Aquinnah voters convene May 8. If both towns approve the budget, West Tisbury then is legally obliged to go along, according to Mrs. Mitchell.
But if the budget fails and the voters reaffirm the $250,000 reduction, Mr. Cash said the result would be a "deep cut," affecting both programs and personnel.