West Tisbury and Chilmark selectmen knocked heads this week over whether a task force studying the Up-Island Regional School District should consider closing the Chilmark School.

The dispute could end the task force study before it even begins, and ultimately unravel the entire regional district, whose future is now in question.

"This is a deal-breaker here," West Tisbury selectman John Early said Wednesday night. "This option was a part of the discussion all along, and should be part of the project."

One night earlier, Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner offered an opposing view. "That is not a viable option. We're not going to close our school," he said.

The remarks came during the regular selectmen's meetings in each town.

Charged with evaluating financial troubles and declining enrollment in the small up-Island district, which includes West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah, the newly formed task force wants to hire a consultant to explore the financial feasibility of several different structural scenarios. One of the five scenarios would close the Chilmark School and send all of the district's elementary school students to the West Tisbury School.

On Tuesday night, Chilmark selectmen said they would not endorse or fund the consultant unless the school-closing scenario is removed from the study. The following night, West Tisbury selectmen balked at their up-Island neighbors, saying there is no way they would approve the study without the scenario, which they see as a vital part of the process.

Tension between the towns over the Chilmark School comes as no surprise. The small school, which has seen per-pupil costs skyrocket in recent years, stands at the center of debate regarding the fate of the up-Island district.

Mr. Early first proposed the task force study at the annual town meeting in April as a compromise to an article authored by the West Tisbury finance committee. The finance committee wanted the town to withdraw from the decade-old regional school district on the grounds that West Tisbury residents carry an unfair portion of the financial burden.

But West Tisbury voters opted for Mr. Early's idea instead, agreeing to an independent analysis of the district's cost-sharing formula. The other two up-Island towns eventually signed on, and the nine-member task force held its first meeting on August 30.

With the study at a standstill and facing a potential stalemate this week, Mr. Early again played the role of statesman.

On Wednesday he suggested that the town invite selectmen from both Chilmark and Aquinnah to West Tisbury's regular meeting next Wednesday to discuss the school-closing scenario and hopefully reach some agreement on both scope and funding for the study.

As of noon yesterday, Chilmark selectmen had not received the invitation. Members of the task force said they see the joint meeting as a worthwhile and necessary step for the study to move forward.

"The selectmen from each town have not met face to face on this issue in a public meeting and wrestled with it," said task force chairman Dick Mezger of West Tisbury. "This is probably the right thing to do at the right time."

It is unlikely the task force will be able to move forward without both Chilmark and West Tisbury's approval. The consultant's estimated cost stands at $24,000. So far, West Tisbury is the only town to appropriate money for the study.

At a special town meeting last month, West Tisbury residents approved funding for the consultant, but only after the article was amended on the floor to limit the town contribution to $12,000, or no more than half of the study's total cost.

Aquinnah's financial troubles have kept the town from committing any money, though selectmen did agree informally to contribute about $3,000, when the overall cost was estimated at around $10,000.

Chilmark also has not set aside a specific amount of money for the study. Selectmen have said they might contribute at least one-third of the total cost, but only if the scenario to close the Chilmark School is removed from the study.

"Why should we help pay for a study to give them ammo to shut us down?" selectman and board chairman Warren Doty asked on Tuesday.

West Tisbury selectmen countered that the consultant's study will not close the school, but will merely provide the district and towns with objective numbers to help develop a plan of action.

"Running that scenario is part of the whole process. The task force is supposed to look at all the options," said West Tisbury selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a member of the school board and chairman of the town finance committee that pushed for withdrawing from the district. "It doesn't harm anything; it's just a possibility. It'll never happen, but it's worthwhile to look at it," he said.

Janet Weidner of Chilmark, cochairman of the task force, expressed hope that the study will go forward despite the selectmen's disagreement.

"Even without the school-closing scenario, there are some really good things that could come out of the study," she said.

The four other scenarios proposed for study include: continuing the district in its present form; dissolving the district, with Aquinnah students attending the Chilmark School, and middle school students from all three up-Island towns attending the West Tisbury School; West Tisbury withdrawing from the district, with the same student distribution as above; or reconstituting the district so that most Aquinnah elementary school students attend the West Tisbury School.

"There is absolutely no disagreement among the nine of us. We work really well together, and tried to be objective in putting together this proposal," Mrs. Weidner said about her fellow task force members. "We spent a lot of time putting together the study, so we'd like to see something come out of it."

Mr. Mezger, meanwhile, expressed frustration that the selectmen had slowed the task force study even more. Mr. Early's original proposal set a goal to get some numbers back in time for annual town meetings next April, a timeline that is now in question.

"They basically grabbed the process back from us. Clearly this is an emotionally and politically complex issue, and we can only proceed to the extent that we can find a way to please all three sponsors and get them to pay their share," Mr. Mezger said.

"If that doesn't happen, we're out of business," he said. "We'll have our farewell meeting and go our separate ways."