What’s this school expenses and ferry funding proposal all about? Did you know that over the next 25 years approximately $155 million will need to be added to the existing school tax assessments for all six towns? There is an unfunded retirement benefits liability of over $80 million plus another $75 to $100 million will be needed for the renovation of our regional high school.

I surely was not aware of this exposure. I discovered this last year when I had the opportunity to attend every high school budget subcommittee meeting and several others for the up-Island regional school district.

The unfunded retirement benefits liability is not unique to the schools. It is estimated that all cities, towns and municipalities in the commonwealth have about $30 billion in unfunded retirement benefits. Also, the aging high school needs a significant renovation to provide a 21st century learning facility to fulfill the 21st century educational needs of its students.

Our school committee members are some of the hardest working volunteers I have seen. However, the problem of these additional expenses has no long-term financial plan for resolution. This large amount of financial exposure is on the horizon, and Islandwide we have no plan to grapple with it other than increased school tax assessments at an alarming rate.

I believe the liabilities are too significant to solve with traditional increased tax assessments. I researched how other public entities fund large expenses and discovered a program created for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that might work for funding public education. This program, a public private partnership, is a partnership between the Island and the Steamship Authority. A small, reducing toll, surcharge or tax as some call it, would be added to every car and passenger ticket purchased between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard. It is analogous to a toll bridge. After all, the ferries are the bridge to and from America for us and all visitors. And just because we don’t want an actual bridge it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get the financial benefits of a functional equivalent.

About a year ago I reviewed and discussed this proposal with the school administration which encouraged me to pursue what seemed on its face to be a meritorious concept.

In March of this year I asked the superintendent if he would help me review the concept with Marc Hanover, our representative to the Steamship Authority. Mark ran it by the SSA general manager and the boat line’s in-house attorney. We received a detailed opinion from the attorney outlining the reasons why it could not be done under the SSA’s existing enabling legislation, and citing legislative hurdles that would block the concept.

While the requirement of amending and securing the needed legislation is daunting, and the objections of the SSA counsel were not unexpected, I thought it worthwhile to continue to persevere. We have been sharing the concept with each town’s board of selectmen and our county government. The purpose of these meetings is to explain, seek input and obtain agreement to continue to pursue the needed legislation for using the Steamship Authority as a funding mechanism. With town support from these meetings, we would then approach our legislative representatives for input and help.

Since the presentations aired on MVTV, the majority of the comments I get at the post office, dump or grocery store are primarily about the amazingly large amount of money that remains unfunded and general support for this approach to raise the needed funds.

Conversely, some don’t understand why I’m continuing to pursue this in the face of implacable opposition of the Steamship Authority.

I don’t see another viable alternative either to add $5 to $6 million more in annual school assessment taxes among all six towns every year for 25 years, or reduce the annual Islandwide operating school budgets by $5 to 6 million per year to fund these additional improvements and expenses. In my opinion adding these additional assessments to our taxes will particularly affect those on fixed incomes, and it is not right to saddle future generations with the debt. Conversely, if the school budgets across the Island were reduced $5 to $6 million per year I believe the impact on our children’s education would be devastating.

I hope I haven’t left you with the feeling that the SSA ticket toll is the only way to address this problem of the large financial needs of the school system and high school. While it is the best idea I have been able to come up with, I am hopeful that the process of addressing the problem will inspire ideas that will be of benefit to its solution.

The conversation has started, as it must be. I believe more public discussion always helps to create a better solution for all. I welcome your comments and encourage you to send your thoughts to your respective boards of selectmen.

Chuck Hodgkinson lives in West Tisbury.