Up-Island School Values

The cost of operating the Chilmark School is on the table for discussion again — this time in West Tisbury, which will carry the heaviest burden this year for the up-Island Regional School District budget.

The added cost burden can be tracked to increased enrollment of West Tisbury students in the Chilmark School. The two schools serve the three up-Island towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, which are all members of the regional school district.

Most of the noise is coming from the West Tisbury finance committee, which has taken a preliminary vote not to recommend the school budget at the annual town meeting in April. At least one committee member has suggested that for reasons of cost efficiency the Chilmark School should be closed.

But that is not happening so long as Chilmark has anything to say about it, and it does.

Chilmark has a long and rich history of educating its children that dates back to the 1800s, when the town had three school districts: north, south and west. The Menemsha School which served the western district still exists today as the Chilmark School; it was a one-room school until 1989 when increasing enrollment demanded an expansion. The present-day school, built eleven years ago, is nestled in a small compound in the village center that includes the town library and the Chilmark Community Center. The school houses three combined classrooms for kindergarten through fifth grade.

On its Web site the school recounts a bit of its own history: “Many Chilmark families can name successive generations that have attended the small community school. In 1945 a heated discussion ensued regarding closing the school. But citizenry wished to keep its education local, and the school remained open. The issue arose again in the 1970s and in 1983, but each time Chilmark’s citizens maintained that educating locally would best secure the elements of a sound education for their young.”

Now as Island towns feel the pressure of hard economic times, the topic has surfaced again.

In fact, the overall budget increase for the up-Island Regional district is modest, about two per cent over last year. The budget includes responsible financial planning for the possible need to add another K-one classroom in Chilmark. And as a member of the regional school district, West Tisbury will be required to pay its assessment as long as Chilmark and Aquinnah vote to pay their assessments too.

Disbanding the school district also has been suggested by the West Tisbury finance critics, but that too has been discussed before and there is no evidence that this would save the town money; quite the opposite, as without the district the towns would lose state reimbursement for transportation costs.

A Gazette editorial in 1989 made the following observation:

“The Chilmark School stands as a reminder of those human values we must preserve in education, even as we seek efficiencies that will help us give our children the best opportunity with finite resources.”

The same words hold true today.