Chilmark Votes Its Assessment for the Regional High School, Marking Final Town Needed; Edgartown Lacks Quorum

Two days shy of the start of the new fiscal year, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School has a budget. Chilmark voters became heroes last night when they said yes to an amended high school budget, marking the fourth and final town approval needed in a tangled regional school assessment odyssey that has dragged on for months.

"Thank God for Chilmark, that's all I can say," regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said via cell phone on her way home from the special town meeting in Chilmark. "On behalf of the constituency of the high school - many of whom can't vote - I couldn't be happier that these towns - Chilmark, West Tisbury - have taken a stand on this issue for them."

She added:

"I totally understand the town fury, the fact that they're being asked to pay additional to make up for funds that other towns don't have to pay. It does seem eminently unfair to them," she said. "But for the kids that I represent, I'm just very happy that some towns were able to do the right thing for them."

With little discussion, 62 Chilmark voters approved their $441,886 regional school assessment last night - an increase of some $75,000 from earlier in the year.

"I am going to vote for this because I would do nothing to stand in the way of an efficient school budget," said Chilmark selectman J.B. Riggs Parker.

Edgartown was also scheduled to vote on its high school assessment at a special town meeting last night but did not achieve a quorum.

At a special town meeting on Tuesday night, Tisbury voters rejected their high school assessment, but the vote will now become symbolic.

This year, the state department of education began enforcing an old state law that requires any assessment method other than a state statutory method to be approved by every town in a school district. Formed in the 1950s, the regional high school district has historically divided its assessments based on enrollment.

The regional high school committee had its $14.3 million budget set and certified in December. At annual town meetings this spring, the school committee presented the six towns with high school assessments based on the enrollment formula in the regional agreement. But because they stood to save some $400,000 under the statutory formula, Oak Bluffs voters rejected their assessment.

And the ball rolled on from there.

The regional high school committee was forced to meet and adopt a second budget, realigning assessments using the so-called statutory formula. And in order for the high school to have a budget by July 1, approval was needed from four of the six Island towns. With approvals in hand from Oak Bluffs, Aquinnah and West Tisbury, it came down to the wire this week.

At the special town meeting in the Chilmark Community Center last night, Mr. Parker decried the fact that the state had taken a 50-year-old agreement and in his words, "wiped it away."

In its written recommendation on the warrant, the town finance committee noted that it recommended the article "reluctantly . . . on a one-time basis, with a request that the selectmen work to correct this incorrigible situation created by the commonwealth . . ."

Mr. Parker agreed. "It's unfortunate that the state has meddled in this because it has put regionalization way behind," he said, urging voters to contact their state legislators about the situation.

The meeting was over in 25 minutes.

In a voice vote on Tuesday night Tisbury voters made their stand against an additional high school assessment of some $241,000. All but one member of the town finance committee recommended that voters turn down the assessment, along with selectman Tristan Israel.

Apologizing in advance for his language, Mr. Israel told voters: "We're getting screwed. I don't know how else to put it."

Cape and Islands legislators have promised to help Island towns offset their extra school costs this year using money from what is known as a state pothole fund.

Some Tisbury voters were skeptical.

"You probably have a better chance of hitting the computer and getting a Mick Jagger ticket than getting pothole money," declared Weit Bacheller, who has been outspoken on the school assessment issue from the outset.

But Bruce Lewellyn, the lone member of the finance committee who stood on the other side of the issue, warned that the vote was little more than an exercise in futility.

"You cannot vote against the statutory formula. No matter what you do, the statutory formula will be applied - until we come to another agreement on how we will be funding this," he said.

Following the Chilmark vote last night, Mrs. Regan expressed audible relief at the outcome. "This means we can go ahead - we can begin posting our positions for next year and start to interview to hire, we can bond our school bus fleet. I think our capital projects that we've put on hold, painting and those things, can go out to bid," she said. "We can start to do business," she concluded.

Reached on his cell phone, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss, who had attended the failed Edgartown meeting, agreed.

"This takes the high school out of limbo and allows it to move forward," he said. "And we still need to talk about how we will handle these things in the future."

Gazette reporters Julia Rappaport and Mike Seccombe contributed to this story.