Rising tension over West Tisbury’s responsibility to pay the lion’s share of the Up-Island Regional School District budget led to sharp words at a district school committee meeting this week after the West Tisbury finance committee balked at paying for the school budget.
The finance committee took a preliminary vote last week not to recommend the school budget on the town meeting floor in April. The point of tension centers on the Chilmark School, where enrollment is increasing.
West Tisbury district representative and committee chairman Dan Cabot expressed blunt disappointment over the apparent lack of unity in the school district that serves the three up-Island towns.
“I was rather appalled by the discussion that preceded the vote [of the West Tisbury finance committee],” Mr. Cabot said at the school committee’s monthly meeting on Monday. “West Tisbury voters have over and over again supported the concept of the Chilmark School and the cost of the Chilmark School and the logic that created the district in the first place. If there’s anybody who’s not listening it’s the West Tisbury finance committee.”
Finance committee member Al DeVito had another view.
“I think the [Chilmark] school is too expensive, the way they present information is too complicated,” he said, adding: “I’ve been on the [committee] for nine years, and it’s been agitating for many of those years to change the budget format in some way and to have a more reasonable cost. It was obvious that’s not going to happen.
“It’s just a matter of how long do you go on this particular vein.”
The up-Island district committee voted to certify the $8.5 million budget in December, a 2.10 per cent increase over last year. The Chilmark School is planning for a possible second kindergarten-first grade class next September due to rising enrollment, although the school will not know if it needs the second class until late this summer. By teacher contract, if there are more than 25 students, the school will be required to add a second classroom. The current K-1 class has 21 students; when the school year began there were 23 students.
West Tisbury’s school assessment will go up 4.5 per cent to $5.8 million, while assessments in Aquinnah and Chilmark will go down. Even without the additional classroom in Chilmark, West Tisbury’s assessment will go up 4 per cent.
Town assessments are based on a school census taken every Oct. 1. With more West Tisbury students attending both the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools, town assessments went up accordingly. Under the current budget, Aquinnah will pay $563,383 and Chilmark will pay $1.9 million.
The tension has led to discussion about disbanding the up-Island regional school district, an idea that has surfaced before. In 2007 an article to break up the district was placed on the annual town meeting warrant in West Tisbury and was rejected by voters.
Without the district the two elementary schools would not receive state reimbursement for transportation costs. The regional district is currently reimbursed for 57 per cent of its transportation costs.
At the school committee meeting Monday, Chilmark town leaders strongly defended their school.
“The Chilmark School is not going to close, come hell or high water, it’s just not going to happen,” Chilmark selectman and board chairman Warren Doty said. “It seems like every year some of us have to go around and renew a statement of our commitment . . . It’s well supported by the community and we want it here and it’s doing a good job.”
He continued: “The school is here, we built it on purpose, it fits into our town plan and it’s going to stay. The constant discussion from West Tisbury that Chilmark is [the committee’s] problem definitely puts a damper on regionalization.”
Adding more ballast to the discussion, the Chilmark finance committee voted to approve the budget at a meeting on Tuesday night.
Mr. Cabot decried the actions of his own town’s finance committee. “Not recommending the Up-Island Regional School District budget is not a way, it’s not a lever to close the Chilmark School. It just isn’t going to happen,” he said. “If the committee decided it needed to cut $1.3 million from [Chilmark’s operating budget], that’s not where it would come from.”
Later in the meeting discussion turned to the topic of academic excellence and achievement for students and teachers. West Tisbury school committee representative Michael Marcus expressed concern that teachers were not being held to high enough standards.
Mr. Marcus said he had received complaints from parents about weak teachers and said he was concerned the district was “hog-tied to the unions.” He asked whether the district had considered buying out teacher contracts instead of eliminating positions.
“I am demanding we understand these issues and give Dr. Weiss the resources he needs,” Mr. Marcus said. “I will be either your biggest fan or your worst nightmare in the area of excellence. When it comes to school policy, the charge goes through Dr. Weiss.”
Mr. Cabot responded: “The mission to cleanse the faculty of problems is not the school committee’s problem, it’s outside of our responsibilities,” Mr. Cabot said. He did agree to allow further discussion on the topic at a future meeting.