This time last year the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School had no budget. Following months of acrimonious debate, Oak Bluffs had voted for a state tax formula which saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars, but cost other towns considerably. This sent the high school committee budget makers back to the drawing board.
In the absence of any alternative, the committee eventually approved a budget using the state formula in June. Now in its second year of use, the state formula has inspired Tisbury to file a lawsuit against Oak Bluffs, the acting commissioner of education Jeffrey Nellhaus and the department of education.
The up-Island school district, meanwhile, has stuck together. A vote at the Aquinnah annual town meeting Tuesday completed a unanimous verdict by the up-Island towns to stick with its district tax formula for elementary schools for the second year (though in place since 1993, the law was never enforced on the Vineyard until 2006).
There are several reasons why the unanimity that has eluded the Vineyard as a region has been easier to achieve up-Island. Susan Parker, who is on the high school and up-Island school committees, points to the importance of town leaders in the outcome. “The historical leadership remembers working together,” she said. Tuesday’s vote came after statesman-like speeches from former Aquinnah selectmen Jeffrey Madison and Michael Herbert, who called for up-Island loyalty and respect for a local agreement over state-driven initiatives.
Also, the district is smaller. “Everyone has friends in each town,” said Mrs. Parker. And perhaps because of this, up-Island towns are used to working together, on a tri-town ambulance service and council on aging, for example.
Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss sees key differences in the two regional district agreements. “The high school agreement is much older and it was controversial to begin with,” he said in an interview this week. Being more modern, he argued, (it was formed in 1993) the up-Island agreement reflects the current needs of the towns. For example, it works to protect Chilmark’s small school against closure, and in a recent change it does not set a minimum percentage contribution toward capital costs for Aquinnah, which doesn’t have a school and is home to fewer students than the other two towns.
Most importantly though, the financial stakes are considerably lower. Aquinnah stood to save $27,000 by voting for the state assessment method.
By contrast, the annual cost of running the high school is the biggest item on most town budgets. When Oak Bluffs were presented last year with a chance to save $440,000 on their education costs, as a budget crunch loomed, they understandably took it.
The assessment method in both the up-Island district and old high regional agreements is based on enrollment. The state formula taxes towns on aggregate wealth for one portion of the high school budget, referred as the preliminary local contribution, with the remaining portion using enrollment numbers. This split worked out as approximately two thirds-one third in last year’s high school budget.
The transitional phase of the state formula is especially complicated, but there is a consensus on one thing: it is not fair. Applied to this region it gives preference among comparable towns. It also oscillates considerably from year to year. For example, last year Tisbury paid $220,000 more than it would have than under the regional agreement, though it is broadly similar to Oak Bluffs financially. This year West Tisbury has suffered most, paying more than $140,000 over their share of the regional formula.
But overall, the gap has already narrowed considerably with this year’s shares.
“The inequality is slowly ebbing away,” said Arthur Smadbeck earlier this year, explaining why some town leaders see that waiting out the transition period on this school assessment conundrum is the most sensible option.
When the high school committee finally voted in June to go with the state formula, they also set up an assessment committee to look at fixing the problem. This committee, which met half a dozen times before dissolving in January, was effectively boycotted by Edgartown, with Mr. Smadbeck arguing that trying to come up with an alternative that all towns could agree on was a waste of time.
“The problem is,” said chairman Jon Snyder after an assessment committee meeting, “there are many different ways to measure fairness.” He recognized the need to achieve some consensus for the general welfare of the Island. “If we could work together on this the feeling is that much else could be accomplished on the regional level,” he said. “We’re not working together at the moment.”
Mr. Weiss predicts that once the current cycle of budget meetings is wrapped up, the issue will reappear. Ultimately he does not think anything will change.
“There’s too much money at stake,” he said.
Last year Edgartown finance committee member Fred Condon, attending an assessment committee meeting as an observer, spoke of a dire need for towns to work together.
“It’s not about the money,” he said, “We’re in the middle of a family spat and we have to repair that. There’s tens of millions to be saved [by working regionally]. We need to get people on board before everyone starts leaving the Island.”