Divisiveness continues to plague attempts by Vineyard officials to reach consensus on a way to fund the Island’s regional high school.
On Monday, the high school assessment committee — a group established in July this year to find an answer to an unpopular, state-imposed school taxation formula — met at the school to address the issue.
At the meeting, Oak Bluffs finance committee chairman Thad Harshbarger proposed an amendment to the regional agreement, calling for a shift from an enrollment-based taxation scheme to one based on real estate values.
Mr. Harshbarger’s motion was rejected.
Tisbury selectman Denys Wortman then moved that the Island towns vote unanimously to skip the existing transition formula and go straight to the state’s new formula, based on wealth and enrollment.
The committee tabled Mr. Wortman’s motion and planned to revisit it at a meeting slated for mid-January.
Any change in the formula will need to be decided upon by Vineyard towns ahead of town meetings next April.
The committee’s role is advisory. Its goal is to reach a consensus that can then be taken back to town leaders, ultimately seeking the unanimous verdict needed to make a change and shift to an equitable system.
Though no motion was passed at Monday’s meeting, committee chairman Jon Snyder described the gathering as “positive.”
But anger continues to linger on the Vineyard over the contentious assessment formula, which last year boosted taxes in some towns and cut them in others.
With this year’s transitional taxation, Oak Bluffs paid over $400,000 less than they did on the old regional system, while Tisbury paid an additional $200,000, despite being widely viewed as an economically comparable sister town.
Continuing resentment felt by Edgartown town leaders toward the actions of Oak Bluffs — whose town meeting vote put the kibosh on a regional tax agreement last year — was evidenced by the absence of Edgartown selectmen at Monday’s meeting.
“They are not willing to begin discussion,” said Mr. Synder, speaking to the Gazette this week after the meeting.
Edgartown finance committee chairman Fred Condon was present in an observational capacity, but was among the most talkative at the meeting.
Reacting to language in the Oak Bluffs proposal, Mr. Condon was especially forthright.
“You need to put yourself in the minds of those who would oppose this,” he said. “Reading this I almost think it’s a joke. There would be no point in taking it back to towns. You’re dealing with a lot of anger here, and you need to put your ideas in a much more presentable form. We want to drive the car down a road, not into a demolition derby.”
Vineyard towns at present are using a transitional formula, constructed by the state, to guide regions from their old taxation system was to one that considers both enrollment numbers and town wealth. Until this year, the Vineyard regional policy since 1956 had been to tax on enrollment alone.
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 and one third in last year’s high school budget.
At the current rate Massachusetts will be working from the new formula in five years but as Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss explained at the meeting, this shouldn’t be taken as a sure thing.
“We can’t assume that nothing happens within the legislature,” he said. “If spending is up elsewhere they could tweak the formula.”
This structure is especially controversial says assistant to the superintendent for business affairs Amy Tierney, because of the Vineyard’s unique circumstances.
“The wealth is off the charts,” said Ms. Tierney this week by telephone. “And the income side of things is sketchy. It is because of our ways. A lot people from around the Island have their PO box in Tisbury, though they live elsewhere [so their income is included as part of Tisbury’s]. Also, a lot of people use bartering and cash transactions which boost up their income but don’t appear officially.”
Mr. Harshbarger’s proposal would circumvent some of these issues, since real estate value is one measure of wealth thata is fixed and state regulated.
For Mr. Condon the real goal of these meetings is therapeutic; to repair a rift that has developed between the towns after the controversy caused this past April when Oak Bluffs voted against the motion proposed by other towns.
“It’s not about the money,” he said at the meeting. “It’s about consensus-building and getting to a ‘yes.’ We’re in the middle of a family spat and we have to repair that.”
He argued that if the towns can begin to work together on issues it has long-term financial importance. “There’s tens of millions to be saved on this island. We need to get people on board before everyone starts leaving the Island because this is not a useful way to spend tax dollars.”
Mr. Wortman called for towns to “bite the bullet” and jump to the state formula, arguing that to overrule the state, with a unanimous agreement, people must adopt a mindset of compromise. He also reminded the committee that this is in fact still a financial issue.
“It is nice to say that money doesn’t matter but I hear around my town that it is,” he said. “Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are similar towns but Oak Bluffs is getting compensated while Tisbury is getting hosed. We have to be fair and look at the big picture.”
Mr. Harshbarger says that the big picture needs to reflect differing town wealth and population to be fair.
“Many people in Oak Bluffs are on social security and live here because they can’t afford the housing prices elsewhere,” he told the Gazette following the meeting. “But at the same time the population is greater and thus the student numbers. So on an enrollment structure, the poor are paying more than the rich,”
He disagrees that a tax scheme based on real estate will be inequitable for Chilmark, a community with one of the highest real estate valuations in the state. “Chilmark has the lowest tax rate in the state. They’ve been paying less for years.”
“The problem is,” says Mr. Snyder, “there are many different ways to measure fairness.”
But he also recognizes achieving some consensus is paramount, 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,” says Mr. Snyder. “We’re not working together at the moment.”
The inner workings of the state-conceived plan are extremely complicated and, in parts, murky. Antipathy towards the state formula is strong among those who feel it is based on poor data gathered around the time of state educational reform in 1993. The information detailed town wealth, student numbers and real estate values.
When Massachusetts department of education associate commissioner Jeff Wulfson travelled to the Island last month to help explain the formula’s intricacies to the committee, he admitted that some data was “flawed” but would not go so far as to say that it was wrong.