West Tisbury selectmen want to get a jump on school costs


West Tisbury selectmen last week took steps to head off yet another clash over the Up-Island Regional School District during the next budget cycle.

At their Wednesday meeting, selectmen agreed to appoint a special task force to work with the school committee over the next year to look for ways to reduce costs.

Selectmen agreed to form the committee less than 24-hours after a plan to reduce the UIRSD budget by $750 per pupil for the fiscal year 2012 budget — or around $233,000 across the district — was handily defeated by voters at the annual town meeting on April 12.

Selectmen and the finance committee (FinCom) endorsed the plan just days before the annual town meeting. Members of both bodies thought the reduction was justified due to high per-pupil costs, among the highest in the state, and reduced student enrollment in the district.

Chairman Richard Knabel introduced the idea of forming a task force. “The idea is to avoid the kind of process we had this year, where at the end there were a lot of frantic meetings about what exactly we should recommend at town meeting,” Mr. Knabel said.

He said the task force would work with the school committee over the next year to establish budget parameters before deliberations begin.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell recommended the group be made up of only a select few members, and gather input from a wide range of people including the school committee, FinCom, and educators.

“We have done variations of this before; trying to form a committee with lots of representatives . . . that sort of guarantees that it’s not going to work. My thought is that we start very small,” she said.

Ms. Mitchell said she would like to be a member of the task force; town accountant Bruce Stone also expressed interest. Selectmen did not take a formal vote to create the committee or appoint members.

In other news, selectmen heard from Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club president Cathy Minkiewicz, who said her group was prepared to donate a parcel of land that includes the Mill Pond dam to the town, provided the town continues to maintain the dam and pay the insurance.

The Garden Club learned in recent months that it owns the Mill Pond Dam, as well as another piece of land across the road that includes a state easement. The news caught everyone by surprise, as it was assumed the town owned the land going back several decades.

The town currently performs routine maintenance on the dam and pays for the insurance policy. When it was revealed the dam was owned by the Garden Club, the town asked club officials if they would be willing to gift the parcel to the town.

At first Garden Club officials were reluctant to cede the land to the town, but after town officials threatened to stop maintenance work and cancel the insurance, they changed their position.

Ms. Minkiewicz said engineer Kent Healy, a West Tisbury resident and unofficial caretaker for the dam, came to the Garden Club’s executive meeting last Tuesday to explain the history of the dam and how it came to be owned by the club.

“Since the town has indicated it would no longer pick up the tab, and rightly so, the executive committee unanimously voted to gift the dam and the land on which the state has an easement, to the town, with the hope and understanding that the town will assume the cost of the transfer,” she said.

Ms. Minkiewicz said the gift will need a two-thirds approval from Garden Club members, which could take place at their regular meeting in May or June. The transfer will also need approval from voters at town meeting.

Ms. Mitchell said she spoke with Mr. Healy last week, who said the parcel will need to be subdivided, which he estimated will cost between $15,000 and $20,000.

Town administrator Jen Rand said selectmen could make an agreement to extend the insurance coverage on the dam until a vote at town meeting can take place, as long as club members ratify the move in the next few months.

“We had given them a cutoff of July 1, but if we saw something coming we could extend that,” she said.