All-Island School Committee supports ACE funding request

The All-Island School Committee (AISC) agreed in a unanimous vote Wednesday night to allow the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) to act as the fiscal agent for the non-profit Adult Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE-MV) program. The committee action paves the way for the financially strapped ACE-MV to seek taxpayer support at annual town meetings this spring.

If all six towns approve the articles, MVPS would issue a request for proposals (RFP) tailored to ACE-MV. The one year contract would be under the supervision of the AISC.

Initially, ACE-MV, which forecasted a deficit of $130,000 in its fiscal year 2015 program, asked the towns to contribute directly to the program. But over the course of presentations to each of the Island boards of selectmen ACE-MV representatives learned that the towns could not fund 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

The program has nearly doubled in size since it was started in 2008, and the nonprofit organization’s fees and tuition do not generate enough income to fully fund administration and overhead at the current level, ACE-MV executive director Lynn Ditchfield told The Times in a previous interview.

Raising tuition in order to cover costs is not a straight equation, according to Ms. Ditchfield. The unpredictability of class enrollments and a desire to keep classes affordable to the larger population limit tuition increases, she said.

Members of the ACE-MV board met with MVPS superintendent James Weiss, superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools last December to ask him to support a plan to funnel taxpayer funding through the school system. Mr. Weiss agreed to bring the request to the AISC’s meeting Wednesday night. Ms. Ditchfield and ACE-MV board members Judy Miller and Grace Sullivan attended and answered questions.

“If we are to continue ACE, we’re going to have to have financial assistance to do it,” Ms. Sullivan said. “We’re asking you to allow us to approach the towns, and to issue a request for proposals when the time comes to do it.”

“You don’t have to sell me on ACE; I think it’s a wonderful program,” Dan Cabot of West Tisbury said during the discussion before the committee’s vote. “My question only concerns the money. To funnel funds through this organization, I have no problem with that. I wonder if it will work.”

Mr. Cabot said given that the AISC has no budget and no funds, it would be akin to “money laundering.”

Mr. Weiss, however, said the arrangement would actually be similar to what the MVPS already does with grant programs and other shared services it manages. Currently MVPS runs the Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program, a program for adult English language learners, as a “pass through” program that is funded by state grants.

“ACE MV is a little different because it’s a separate entity we would be contracting with to do that,” Mr. Weiss said. “We would of course require our lawyers to look at everything and make sure there is no difficulty. ACE would have to keep the appropriate records, because it would be using public funds. They would need professional management.”

Mr. Weiss said although he has not checked with MVPS counsel yet, a few selectmen told him they have discussed the legalities of ACE-MV’s proposal with legal counsel and are comfortable with it.

Ms. Ditchfield said West Tisbury selectman Cindy Mitchell and town counsel Ron Rappaport had discussed ACE’s proposal with someone at the State Treasury Department, who told them there was precedent for such an arrangement and it could be done. Ms. Mitchell suggested the AISC would be more appropriate as ACE-MV’s fiscal agent, rather than Dukes County, Ms. Ditchfield said.

AISC members Colleen McAndrews of Tisbury and Robert Lionette of Chilmark were concerned about what the school committee’s responsibilities would entail.

“If we’d be the financial owner, if there were shortfalls or financial issues, would we own them?” Ms. McAndrews asked.

Mr. Weiss said that if the MVPS puts out an RFP and contracts with ACE-MV, the agreement would include a dollar amount, similar to grant programs it oversees.

“It’s conceivable if we put out the RFP. we’d build into any agreement with ACE MV that there’s a finite amount of dollars, similar to grant programs we oversee, Mr. Weiss said.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees with the importance of this program, obviously,” Ms. McAndrews summed up at the conclusion of the AISC’s discussion before the vote. “I think the concern I have and other people have is how we go about making sure this is legitimate or something we should be doing. I guess it all comes down to Dr. Weiss.”

“If you were to approve this going forward, I would say we approve it for a year and see how it works out,” Mr. Weiss suggested. “If the bottom falls out or there are difficulties, we would keep you apprised and say you know, it didn’t work for the following reasons, maybe you could find another venue for this.” He said that MVPS would manage the records to track whether the program is succeeding.

After the committee’s vote, Ms. Ditchfield thanked the members and also took the opportunity to ask everyone to buy a ticket for an upcoming raffle to benefit ACE-MV, which she happened to have available.