High School Budget Must Be Redone


The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School budget now goes back to the drawing board.

This is the next step following the vote in Oak Bluffs this week to reduce its high school assessment by some $400,000. The vote capped months of debate among Island towns over regional school assessments, which were thrown into a state of widespread confusion because of a 14-year-old state law that for unknown reasons had never been enforced on the Vineyard until this year.

Adopted by the state legislature in 1993, the law directed the state Department of Education to come up with a formula to realign assessments in regional school districts so that wealthy communities would pay more and poorer communities would pay less. The result was the so-called wealth-based or statutory formula for regional school assessments.

All regional school districts have the power to decide how to formulate assessments to their member towns. Signed in the 1950s, the Vineyard regional high school agreement calls for assessments to be allocated on a per-pupil basis, and historically this is how they have been done.

The 1993 state law does not strip regional school committees of their power to formulate assessments, but it does require that if any formula other than the so-called wealth-based formula is used, the school budget must be approved by every town in the school district.

If the wealth formula is used, the budget must be approved by two thirds of the towns in a school district. On the Vineyard that means four of the six towns.

The regional high school budget was certified late last year, and the school committee faced a choice: stick with the old formula spelled out in the regional agreement, or adopt the state's so-called wealth formula. After a round of community meetings and much discussion, the committee decided to stick with the same assessment formula it has always used, based on enrollment.

The committee then needed all six towns to approve the high school budget - a gamble, since in Oak Bluffs in particular, much money was at stake.

Under the state formula, assessments in Oak Bluffs and Aquinnah would be dramatically lower, while assessments in the other four towns would be higher. Tisbury would take the hardest hit under the changed formula, with assessments estimated to be some $300,000 higher.

The confusion has been compounded by the fact that the numbers coming from the state are only estimates, because the formula dates back to 1993. Revisions were still under way at press time and are expected to continue in the weeks ahead.

The action by Oak Bluffs voters on Tuesday night to reduce their regional high school assessment by $400,000 amounts to a best-guess scenario using the state formula; it also amounts to rejection of the high school budget. A lengthy opinion from school attorneys at Murphy, Lamere & Murphy P.C. lays out the next steps:

* The high school district committee must meet again within 30 days of the town meeting vote and reconsider its budget.

* When it meets, the school committee may choose to revise its budget; it may choose to revote the same budget and revise the assessment formula; it may choose to keep both the budget and assessment formula the same; or it may choose to adopt some new formula.

* Once the committee acts on a new budget, member towns then have 45 days to call a special town meeting to consider the school budget again.

* The school committee's decision on an assessment formula will determine whether it needs approval from four or six towns.

Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss said yesterday that a school committee meeting is set for April 24. Mr. Weiss said he will recommend that the committee adopt the state formula for this year. "The budget is done and it's a good, solid budget - that should not be changed. What should be looked at is the assessment formula, and given where we are, I think the committee needs to recommend the statutory formula and move on," Mr. Weiss said. "I don't think we really have a choice."

If the committee acts on his recommendation, then at least four towns will need to call special town meetings to adopt the budget. Oak Bluffs likely will not need to reconvene unless the numbers coming out of the state change dramatically. Aquinnah, which has not held its town meeting yet, and faces a choice similar to Oak Bluffs, also may not need to reconvene.

Chilmark has also not held its town meeting yet, but will likely need to call another special town meeting, as will Edgartown and Tisbury. Tisbury is expected to vote no on a changed assessment, but unless other towns follow suit, the vote will be symbolic.

Mr. Weiss said he hopes to help Tisbury acquire money from a state education fund known as the pothole fund - money set aside to help towns defray extraordinary expenses - to help soften the blow.

There are a few other unknowns: upward changes school assessments could push some Vineyard towns over their Proposition 2 1/2 tax cap.

"People ask for a simple explanation of this, but nothing about it is simple," said Mr. Weiss, who is a resident of Oak Bluffs and attended the meeting this week. He said the decision by Oak Bluffs voters was understandable, if regrettable.

"There are two things people need to realize," he said, continuing:

"Number one, there is no money coming from anywhere other than the Island - it's a matter of how it is divvied up - if Oak Bluffs saves, someone else has to spend. So it's difficult to get beyond the winners and the losers.

"But the other thing that is important to understand is that we have lost control. The high school has always been able to prepare its budget early and do its assessments in December. That will no longer be the case because the legislature doesn't finalize things until June. So that is too bad, because we have a system that has worked well for many years and that won't be the case anymore."