West Tisbury officials want school budget reduced

The West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom) and the selectmen took a hard line on the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) budget, agreeing to recommend to voters at the annual town meeting that the district’s spending plan be cut by $750 per student.

Under the joint agreement approved during a meeting of the FinCom and selectmen on Tuesday, the budget for the district – which serves 311 students in the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah – would be reduced by $233,250.

That reduction would be applied across the district, and would result in a reduction in the assessments charged to all three towns.

The UIRSD school committee in December approved a budget for fiscal 2012 of $8.16 million, which represents an increase of $190,151 to West Tisbury. Earlier this month the FinCom voted to reject the budget, and called for the town’s assessment to be reduced by $190,000. Doin so would have effectively set the assessment back to fiscal year 2011 levels.

Selectmen supported the move by the FinCom, but wanted to come up with a position that reflected a level funded budget, not one that only matched the assessment from last year, and asked to meet with the FinCom to work out a recommendation that everyone could support.

The result of that meeting was agreement that sends the strongest message yet about the town’s desire to see reductions in the UIRSD budget. If voters approve, the action could have broader implications for other Island schools.

For years, West Tisbury officials have criticized the UIRSD budget, which is calculated using a complicated regional formula based on the total enrollment per town, divided by the total district enrollment.

Each town’s share for the site operating budgets is based on the enrollment per town in the West Tisbury School and Chilmark School, divided by the district enrollment of each school.

Although the district’s enrollment decreased slightly in fiscal year 2011, the number of students enrolled from Aquinnah and Chilmark decreased more than in West Tisbury, forcing the latter town to pay a higher percentage of the overall district budget.

As a result, West Tisbury’s assessment is projected to increase $252,080, or 4.53 next year, while Aquinnah’s assessment will decrease $71,806, or 11.3 percent, and Chilmark’s share will drop $10,420, or .55 percent.

Richard Knabel, chairman of the selectmen, said everyone agreed at Tuesday’s meeting that the FinCom and selectmen needed to form a unified front at the annual town meeting and present a recommendation that everyone understood and supported.

“We were just looking for common ground, and I think we found it. The FinCom and the selectmen felt there was a need to send a message that the costs for the district are too high,” Mr. Knabel said during a phone conversation after the meeting.

“What we agreed to do had more to do with the overall budget and not just the assessment, because the assessment formula is its own thing,” he added.

Town administrator Jen Rand said town officials have asked the school committee to cut the budget numerous times over the years, although this was the first time anyone has asked for a per-pupil reduction.

Selectmen asked by how much

At their regular meeting March 23 selectmen discussed the FinCom’s decision to cut the assessment by $190,000 and agreed that figure did not match the town’s assessment under a level funded budget.

Town administrator Jen Rand said the FinCom settled on that figure because it did not have the information needed to calculate the town’s assessment under a level funded budget.

The FinCom, pressed for time, according to Ms. Rand, made a recommendation before the warrant for the town meeting closed the next day. “It’s not a number based on level funding in the expense line, because nobody in the room that night could tell us what the assessment would be,” she said.

Selectman chairman Richard Knabel said he worried the reduction was arbitrary and difficult to explain to voters. “It’s going to very difficult to justify, or it is going to generate another discussion on the meeting floor about assessment versus the budget,” Mr. Knabel said.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell agreed. “Without a sound methodology, I think the FinCom, and I don’t mean to be overly critical of them, had a hard time coming up with the number. But it does need to make sense, and it needs to be reasonable and not overly arbitrary, in order for the town meeting attendees to get it,” she said.

Ms. Rand recommended selectmen meet with the FinCom and develop a figure that everyone could support.

“There is an opportunity to amend [the budget]to a different number to reflect level funding the expenses. That would be supported by both the FinCom and the board of selectmen,” she said.

In a phone conversation Friday, superintendent of schools James K. Weiss said he and other members of the school community would attend the annual town meeting and argue in favor of the budget as presented.

“And, if they do agree to a plan to change the assessment, I hope they extend the courtesy of giving me a phone call before the town meeting, so we know what to expect,” he said.

If voters reject the school budget as presented, or approve an amendment to change the assessment, the UIRSD school committee would then have the option of changing the budget. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the budget would then be based upon the statutory formula, Mr. Weiss said.