West Tisbury task force will study Up-Island region’s budget

The West Tisbury School. — File photo by Mae Deary

Despite an early lukewarm reception from school committee members, West Tisbury leaders will move ahead to create a task force to review the Up-Island Regional School District’s (UIRSD) budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY13).

West Tisbury selectmen Cindy Mitchell and Richard Knabel, town accountant Bruce Stone, and finance committee (FinCom) member Greg Orcutt presented the task force proposal at a meeting with the UIRSD committee on June 23.

On Tuesday this week, Ms. Mitchell said in a phone conversation with The Times that task force members would be confirmed soon at a West Tisbury selectmen’s meeting and get started in a fairly short timeframe.

The school committee had invited representatives from the district’s three member towns, Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, to the summer meeting to begin discussion about the UIRSD FY13 budget in advance of the process that usually starts in the fall. However, only West Tisbury’s representatives attended.

The three up-Island towns share the costs of the Chilmark School, with 52 students enrolled in grades K-5 last year, and the West Tisbury School, with 259 students in grades K-8.

Task force proposal

Ms. Mitchell said while the school committee has been talking about how to get a jump on the FY13 budget, West Tisbury leaders have been talking informally about creating a small task force to help facilitate the process.

She provided school committee members with an outline for the UIRSD 2013 budget review task force Among its activities, the task force would identify UIRSD educational goals, analyze various budget scenarios that could reduce costs and assess the possible education impacts, conduct parent and staff surveys on key assumptions and questions, and review and recommend updates to the regional agreement.

The outline also proposed that task force members include the town accountant, a selectman, a FinCom member, and a UIRSD member. Participation by Chilmark and Aquinnah officials would be encouraged through their UIRSD school committee members and the task force meeting with other town boards, such as the selectmen and FinComs.

Turf war

School committee members reacted to the task force proposal with cautious skepticism.

“What you’re doing with the task force is duplicating the process the school committee goes through, which says to me you don’t trust us,” school committee chairman Dan Cabot said.

Ms. Mitchell’s request that the school committee appoint a representative to the task force also met with resistance.

“One of the problems is somebody from this committee would sit through two-thirds of this stuff twice, and yet as far as communicating what our educational goals are, etcetera, you’d accomplish the same goal by sending someone to our meetings,” Mr. Cabot said.

He suggested that FinCom members and selectmen should attend the school committee’s budget meetings.

Superintendent of schools James Weiss spoke favorably in support of the task force as a means to make the budget process between the school committee, West Tisbury selectmen, and FinCom more positive. He recommended that the task force include representatives from the other member towns.

“I think you’ve got some fences to mend,” school committee member Perry Ambulos of Chilmark said. “It would be incredibly beneficial to all of us if there were Chilmark representatives.”

Ms. Mitchell said the task force would welcome more participation. Although the school committee did not express an interest in representation, Ms. Mitchell said she and Mr. Stone and the FinCom were prepared to organize the task force.

“My personal reaction is that this is a terrific idea,” Mr. Cabot said. “Go ahead, and we’ll cooperate as much as we can and give you any information you ask for.”

Budget battle baggage

With only the West Tisbury representatives in attendance, school committee members aired their lingering resentments over a budget skirmish that took place between them, the selectmen, and FinCom on town meeting floor on April 12. The West Tisbury group vented their frustrations about the school district’s growing budget and their lack of input in the process to reduce school costs.

The school committee had approved a FY12 operating budget of $8.35 million last December, an increase of $190,151 from $8.15 million in FY11. Due to enrollment differences, West Tisbury’s FY12 assessment for shares of the superintendent’s and school committee costs would increase by $252,085, while Aquinnah’s would decrease by $71,807, and Chilmark’s by $10,420.

At West Tisbury’s town meeting, Mr. Orcutt, backed by the FinCom and selectmen, proposed an amendment to reduce the West Tisbury School budget by $750 per student, for a total of $233,250, and to lower the town’s assessment by $167,666.

Mr. Cabot asked voters to reject it and said the district’s high per-pupil cost was justified by the results of elevated educational standards that produce top-ranking students.

Ms. Mitchell argued in favor of the budget reduction amendment and said the school committee had not managed the region optimally. Instead, she said the two schools are treated separately, without giving thought to efficiencies that might be gained by reconfiguring and using the space in both facilities to the best regional advantage.

The amendment was defeated and the budget approved.

Given there was no post town meeting “debrief,” school committee member Michael Marcus of West Tisbury said he wanted to air his feelings about it at the June 23 meeting.

Mr. Marcus, newly elected last November, said he viewed the amendment made on town floor as an attempt by the FinCom and selectmen to “shanghai” the school committee through the budget process by ganging up against its members.

“For us to set a budget, for the superintendent to put forward a budget, for the principals to work on a budget, and then you want to propose a specific reduction and not have any idea where that might come from, I don’t know if that’s just sort of a shot across the bow, to make us pay attention or something like that?” Mr. Marcus said.

“I think that’s exactly what it was,” Ms. Mitchell replied.

Two school debate

In other discussion at the meeting, Mr. Cabot addressed the “elephant in the room,” the longstanding debate between West Tisbury and Chilmark over keeping the Chilmark School open and the cost effects on the school district’s budget.

Chilmark School’s FY12 operating budget is $1.13 million and West Tisbury School’s is $5.34 million.

“One of the issues on everybody’s mind is the relation of the two schools in the district,” Mr. Cabot said. Although it would no doubt save money if all of the students in the district went to school in the West Tisbury School building, Mr. Cabot said the reality is that Chilmark will not allow that to happen.

As one of the authors of the original UIRSD agreement in the early 1990’s, Ms. Mitchell said she was well aware that Chilmark leaders entered into the regional agreement with the condition that they keep their school.

“Personally, I respect that, which doesn’t mean there aren’t more regional efficiencies and better use of the schools’ two spaces,” she said.

“What I said at town meeting doesn’t come close to proposing that every student go to West Tisbury School,” Ms. Mitchell added. “What we talked about was running the region more like a region, and that there were certainly some efficiencies that looked like they could be had, but they weren’t.

“If this pattern continues of the budget becoming higher year after year, at some point it becomes unsustainable,” she also pointed out.