In frustration over their failure to negotiate change to what they consider a blatantly unfair state-imposed formula for funding the regional high school, Tisbury selectmen will take the matter to court.
A lawsuit filed in Dukes County Superior Court last Friday names the Massachusetts Board of Education, the Acting Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Nellhaus, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and the town of Oak Bluffs as defendants in the matter.
At issue is the new formula which has increased Tisbury’s annual contribution to the Island’s regional school district by nearly $200,000, while reducing that of Oak Bluffs by some $400,000. Tisbury pays more, although it has fewer students at the school than Oak Bluffs.
In a press release put out the same day as the town filed its complaint, Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee said the town had “reached a point where there is little other recourse but to seek the involvement of the court system to mitigate these troubling circumstances.”
Yesterday Mr. Bugbee outlined a long history of attempts by the town to negotiate an alternative to the complex new formula, which is based on property values income and other factors.
“We first attempted to contact our elected officials and see whether we could solve this legislatively.
“We discussed the issue with both the state senator [Robert O’Leary] and state representative [Eric Turkington], neither of whom were willing to pursue the issue. We asked to have a meeting with the governor,” Mr. Bugbee said.
“We met the governor’s education officials, who were lukewarm on the issue. It became very clear the legislative route was not going to be very effective.”
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said in his frustration at getting the runaround from the governor’s office, he had even approached the lieutenant governor, Tim Murray, at a fund-raiser and sought a meeting with education officials, but that also proved fruitless.
“O’Leary and Turkington did get us some pothole aid, but it fell way short of what they said it would be. Turkington said he would make us whole, make up the whole difference. He got us about $110,000 or about half,” Mr. Israel said, adding:
“And that pothole aid is for only one year.
“So we took this action because we had run out of other options.”
Under an agreement which had operated successfully for 50 years, Island towns had contributed to the school district on a per-pupil basis. The state Education Reform Act, under which the new formula operates, would have allowed the continuation of this system only if all towns agreed to it.
The legal complaint named the town of Oak Bluffs, which is the big beneficiary of the new funding scheme, only because it was the first town to break ranks and opt for the new model.
“But in the long run this isn’t really about us and Oak Bluffs, it’s about us and the department of education imposing on a regional district that was working well a set of parameters that are blatantly unfair to the town of Tisbury,” Mr. Israel said.
He complained that the new model, despite its good intentions of ensuring that wealthier communities subsidized less-wealthy ones, made no sense.
“Even the state admits there’s only three people in the whole state who really understand the whole thing,” he said.
“The government figures show a tremendous income disparity between Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. The Tisbury people were averaging in the $70,000 a year income range and the people in Oak Bluffs, $28,000, something like that.
“I don’t know what the relative differences are between the towns are, but I do know what the department of education is showing is ridiculous.”
He said they initially thought the income figures were based on zip codes, which could have led to distorted numbers because some 1,800 residents of other towns maintain mailing addresses in Vineyard Haven.
“But they then told us that for this year’s calculations, zip codes didn’t really matter.
“And they told us that at the end of a transition period, things will go back, believe it or not, to where we started.
“And we don’t know how long the transition period will be. It could be three years, it could be 10 years.
“It’s a complex issue, but we felt we have been blown off by the state the state officials.”
In his release, Mr. Bugbee said there were serious legal questions about the education department’s ability to impose a statutory formula on towns that have routinely met the minimum required local contribution.
“This issue is far too important to be shrugged off as bad luck for Tisbury. Instead it needs to be examined by a court of law that has authority to correct what we believe is a major oversight in a broad and restrictive network of state regulations,” the town administrator said.
Mr. Bugbee said the prospect of legal action had been under consideration for several months, ever since a member of the town finance committee, Bruce Llewellyn, a retired attorney, suggested it.
He said it was not anticipated that the case would be expensive.
“It’s a matter of getting a judge to look at it and make a declaratory judgment and decide whether there is enough evidence here for the case to go forward.
“This should be a relatively short, inexpensive legal process. The selectmen are acutely aware we’re spending taxpayer dollars and would not be prepared to do that unless they thought there would be a significant return.
“We’re looking to return to what we thought was an equitable formula.”
When the issue was briefly discussed by the Oak Bluffs selectmen this week, selectman Duncan Ross said he found it “interesting” that Aquinnah, which followed Oak Bluffs by approving the new funding model, was not named in the complaint.
Selectman Ron DiOrio said Oak Bluffs had been paying a disproportionate amount for education from 1993 on, and suggested the town should pursue that as part of its response to the lawsuit.
“The school is located in Oak Bluffs and this town incurs a serious cost on behalf of the Island,” he said.
Kerry Scott, chairman of board, simply expressed hope the process would ultimately a fair funding mechanism that properly represented all Island towns.