At a small gathering in the Oak Bluffs library on Friday morning, state Sen. Robert O'Leary and Rep. Eric T. Turkington all but guaranteed financial aid to the four Island towns that will be negatively affected by a state formula that realigns regional high school assessments in the coming fiscal year.
The four towns are Chilmark, Edgartown, Tisbury and West Tisbury. The money would come from a special state fund called the pothole account.
"It's called the pothole account because instead of paving the whole street, we fill a hole," Mr. Turkington told the group of about a dozen people, which included selectmen from Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. Tisbury selectmen did not receive word of the meeting in time. "I would give you a 90 per cent likely that your towns would get it," he added.
Some Island towns are poised to see dramatically reduced regional school assessments beginning July 1, while others will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more. For the first time this year the 2008 school budget is expected to be divided using what is known as the statutory formula, rather than the enrollment-based formula spelled out in the regional agreement.
The issue has been the source of ongoing disagreement among the six Island towns this spring. Town leaders first appealed to Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Turkington at the end of last summer for help.
Mr. Turkington said $5.5 million in pothole aid was added to the state budget, which still awaits approval from Gov. Deval Patrick.
Mr. Turkington said new language was added to the bill to ensure that the Island would be eligible for the funds. The regional school district would apply for the funds on behalf of the towns affected negatively by the statutory assessment method, and then the money would be funneled to those towns, he said.
The switch in assessment method was precipitated by a change in the state Department of Education rules this year that enforces a law dating back to 1993. The law requires unanimous approval among member towns in a regional school district that calculates assessments with any method other than the state's. After Oak Bluffs voted down its enrollment-based assessment in April, the high school committee was forced to adopt another budget with realigned assessments.
To date three of the six towns have approved the new high school budget - Oak Bluffs, Aquinnah and West Tisbury. Edgartown, Chilmark and Tisbury all have special town meetings before the end of the month; at least one more town must approve the high school budget in order for it to take effect July 1.
If no school budget is ratified by July 1, the state commissioner of education will set a budget.
Edgartown selectman Margaret Serpa asked on Friday whether the affected towns would be covered for 100 per cent of the gap.
"We can't guarantee 100 per cent. We don't know that," Mr. O'Leary said. "What we do feel confident about is there will be additional money."
Mr. Turkington said towns in western Massachusetts and Cape Cod will be competing for the funds as well.
Mrs. Serpa also asked whether the pothole aid was a one-time fix, or if the same towns could receive aid in the following years too. Rep. Turkington said they would be eligible to apply again.
Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck called the pothole aid good news, but he lambasted the entire issue as a needless thorn in the side of the Island.
"This whole thing is a tempest in a teapot," he said. "When the smoke clears, the statutory formula is basically a per capita agreement."
Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss said it may actually take several more years for the statutory formula to be completely updated.
"I want to thank the people on this Island who have spent so much time trying to grapple with this," Mr. Weiss said. "Let's just do what we can to make you whole and move on."