High School Budget in Limbo as Special Meeting Plans Stall
By IAN FEIN
In a political maneuver intended to draw the attention of the state, selectmen in three Island towns this week indicated they may intentionally leave the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School without a budget for the coming fiscal year.
The unusual tactic comes as part of an ongoing controversy over how towns divide their regional school district costs.
Selectmen in Chilmark, Edgartown and Tisbury this week justified their proposed plan by saying it preserved the only opportunity to keep the existing regional agreement intact. Though sympathetic to the frustrations of town selectmen, school officials chastised the idea, which they said would leave the regional high school in a dangerous state of uncertainty.
They also noted that the selectmen, by openly shirking a state law requiring them to hold special town meetings on a recertified high school budget, are taking away decision-making authority from town voters.
"From the school's point of view, what the selectmen are doing is really stopping the process. It doesn't give voters an opportunity to have their say, and it doesn't give the school an opportunity to do what it needs to do," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said this week. "I'm not clear whether I have a high school budget for 2008, or whether I can hire staff and move forward."
If four of the six Island towns do not approve the high school budget before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, the state commissioner of education will step in and impose assessments of his choice to each member town on a monthly basis. Proponents of the political maneuver say they intend to lobby the education commissioner at this point to distribute such costs based on the existing regional agreement.
If Vineyard towns still have not adopted a high school budget by Dec. 1, the education commissioner would assume control of the district and set a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year.
"The end result could be that the high school experiences a significant loss of budget," Mr. Weiss said.
The exercise of a recertified budget and special town meetings is a first for the Vineyard, which for the firt time this year became subject to a 15-year-old state law regarding regional school districts. The law requires unanimous approval from all member towns to divide costs based on existing regional agreements, but approval from only two-thirds of member towns to divide costs based on a state-calculated statutory formula. The difference between the two formulas for the Vineyard regional high school district is hundreds of thousands of dollars for certain towns.
Oak Bluffs voters this spring triggered a switch from the existing regional agreement to the statutory formula by exercising their right to lower their assessment by some $435,000. Aquinnah voters would also save some $60,000 in the new formula, and approved the lower number at their special town meeting earlier this month.
If enacted, the difference between the two formulas would be made up by other Island towns to the tune of $240,000 in Tisbury, $120,000 in West Tisbury, $86,000 in Edgartown and $75,000 in Chilmark. None of the changes are expected to require a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Meanwhile, two more towns still must approve the statutory budget in order for the high school to obtain the necessary two-thirds approval. State law requires towns to hold special town meetings to reconsider the budget once it has been amended and recertified, which the Vineyard high school committee did on April 25. But as of this week, only West Tisbury selectmen have called a special town meeting.
Edgartown selectmen on Monday held a joint meeting with selectmen from Chilmark, Tisbury and West Tisbury to discuss their next steps. At the joint session, Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck laid out the reasoning for not calling a special town meeting.
He argued that forcing the commissioner of education to determine a monthly assessment for the Vineyard high school will provide town leaders one last chance to make their case for sticking with the regional agreement formula.
"The only opportunity at this point for our agreement formula to be implemented will be for department of education to step in and take a last look at enforcing it," he explained later this week. "Really, it's our last stab at trying to keep the agreement alive."
Mr. Smadbeck also said he had no interest in hurting the high school, and expressed a commitment to making sure the school was fully funded. He and Chilmark selectmen have discussed the possibility of simply writing quarterly checks to the high school based on the old regional agreement formula, but it remains unclear whether the school would be able to spend the money without an approved and ratified district budget.
In the end, Edgartown selectmen voted unanimously on Monday to not call a special town meeting. Selectmen in Tisbury indicated on Tuesday that they have no intention of holding a special town meeting either.
Chilmark selectmen discussed the issue at their meeting on Tuesday night, but put off a final decision on whether to call a special town meeting until early next month.
Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a West Tisbury selectman and member of the regional high school committee, pleaded with his colleagues in Chilmark to put politics aside and support the school.
"I agree with the message you want to send, but we're looking for a solution. In the meantime, the high school needs to have a budget," Mr. Manter said on Tuesday. "This could affect the educational level at the high school," he added.
The following night, West Tisbury selectmen affirmed their commitment to holding a special town meeting on June 5.
High school committee chairman Susan Parker of Chilmark this week said she was disappointed with the tactic proposed in Edgartown on Monday, and said she hoped that selectmen would let town meeting voters decide how they want to handle the situation.
"I understand the concern that the statutory formula is not ideal, and that adopting it this year would be a stopgap measure," Mrs. Parker said. "But I feel everybody's responsibility should be first and foremost to the high school, and these concerns can be worked out in a better way that's less damaging," she continued.
"It just creates stress, and distracts people who should be focusing on the kids and their education."
Gazette reporter Julia Rappaport contributed to this story.