Editors, Vineyard Gazette;

I am an elected member of the Chilmark finance advisory committee. Massachusetts finance committees are required by law to be the watchdogs on all town financial matters — to be the “eyes and ears” for their taxpayers.

For Chilmark, part of my duties for several years has been to monitor the budgetary decisions made by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s school committee. What I have seen is an abuse of the budget process by a slim majority of the MVRHS school committee, resulting in excessive spending to pursue an artificial turf playing field at the high school.

While I take no position on the “artificial turf versus grass” controversy, I have serious concerns about the financial aspects of this saga. I have watched the ongoing and unaccountable spending of taxpayer dollars for years. The time has now come, finally, for the voters to push back and say “enough is enough,” this spending is out of control and has to stop.

Some background: Island taxpayers have already spent approximately $650,000 on this proposed artificial turf field — architectural design, design overruns, consultants, studies, lawyers, more lawyers. In 2019 the high school first requested $350,000 to design the turf field. Chilmark town meeting voters denied that spending request by a nearly-unanimous vote, and it passed narrowly in Aquinnah and West Tisbury.

But the select boards in Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown did not call special town meetings and, therefore, those towns “approved” the spending by default — by not meeting, not debating, not acting. The down-Island select boards did not give an opportunity to their voters for public discussion on whether they wanted to spend their tax dollars for an artificial turf field. And there has been no public discussion since 2019, by any of the six Island towns.

The immediate issue facing the towns is the recent spending blizzard to pursue the court case, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School v. Town of Oak Bluffs Planning Board. The lawsuit was brought by the MVRHS school committee to challenge the Oak Bluff’s planning board’s denial of permission to install artificial turf. All towns share the plaintiff’s legal bills. Oak Bluffs also pays all of the defense legal bills as it is, in essence, suing itself.

New developments. Two weeks ago, in a 5-4 vote, the MVRHS school committee removed the previously-approved spending “cap” on the lawsuit. With that decision, our towns are presently on the hook for any and all spending on the lawsuit — forever. In essence, five school committee members demanded that there be no limits on amounts to be spent, no further votes on spending by their own committee, and no transparency to the towns. Since there is always another judge, another court, another motion and another appeal, the lawsuit will drag on, legal fees will keep piling up and taxpayers will keep paying.

What can taxpayers do to stop it? West Tisbury voters took action last week by saying no to the MVRHS budget article at town meeting. Citing the school committee’s continued spending on the lawsuit, the voters, in a nearly unanimous vote, “zeroed out” their town’s entire assessment for the high school. (Note: Voters cannot “amend” the high school budget at town meeting and, procedurally, their only recourse is to vote no on the entire budget item.)

Three towns will hold their annual town meetings in the upcoming weeks — Chilmark, Tisbury, and Aquinnah. If at least two towns follow the lead of West Tisbury and vote no on their MVRHS budget assessment, taxpayers’ voices will finally have been heard.

What will happen if they do? If three or more towns vote no, by law the budget will be sent back to the MVRHS school committee for amendment and recertification, in accordance with the will expressed by Island voters. If the school committee responds, the amended budget will then return to the towns for approval.

However, if the slim majority who support this lawsuit ignore the taxpayers and stubbornly fail to act, and it will be on them to act, the state will step in to ensure continuous school funding. There will be no interruption in the education of our students. The money will keep flowing to the high school programs from all towns under the terms of last year’s budget.

Will this action by the towns affect the Island’s plans to build a new high school, with the state sharing the funding? No, it is a completely separate issue. The two warrant articles related to the goal of rebuilding our high school have passed in three towns already, and are expected to pass easily in the other three. One is the new funding formula for the equitable sharing among the towns of the costs of rebuilding. The other is to fund a “feasibility study” to plan what needs to be done. When all towns have spoken, we will be well on our way to getting state funding to help us build the facility our students need and deserve.

Let’s focus on rebuilding the high school before we waste any more money litigating the playing fields.

Vicki Divoll

The writer is a member of the Chilmark Finance Advisory Committee.