Chilmark rebuts West Tisbury School report

A committee charged with examining school costs recommended the three up-Island towns meet to resolve the issues.

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Chilmark Town Hall

The polite disagreement between West Tisbury and Chilmark over the formula used to pay the costs associated with the Chilmark School continued Tuesday night when the Chilmark selectmen received a report from a task force set up to examine West Tisbury complaints.

In April, West Tisbury selectmen received the findings of a school task force that said while it would make economic sense to close the Chilmark School, or to withdraw from the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) as a last resort, the recommended course of action and the most tenable was to revise the regional agreement and “shift more of the Chilmark School costs to Chilmark.”

In response, Chilmark appointed a task force to examine those findings. On Tuesday night, committee member Susan Murphy presented the school task force findings to selectmen. “We are committed to remaining in the UIRSD,” Mr. Murphy reported.

The UIRSD includes Aquinnah. The report contends that the real problem is with the overall growth in school budgets, including the superintendent’s budget. It recommended that one selectman from each of the three towns, together with all three town accountants, get together to reexamine the formula on which the original UIRSD agreement was made.

Look at the budgets

The report acknowledges “that West Tisbury is concerned about the cost per student at the UIRSD, and has discussed and is considering changing the cost formula between the three towns.” It then provides some history of the UIRSD to underpin the discussion.

“In the 1860s Chilmark operated four schools and had a student enrollment of 160 pupils. By 1920 when the Cape Higgon School closed on the North Road, Chilmark operated just one two-room school house at Beetlebung Corner, traditionally known as the Menemsha School. When the Gay Head School closed in the 1960s, the Gay Head students attended the Chilmark School. West Tisbury built the beginning of what is now the West Tisbury School in 1973.”

The report notes that contrary to what was stated in the West Tisbury report, the Chilmark School was built in response to an increase in the student population and an inadequate school building.

“The Chilmark School continues to be a well-run, thrifty program offering a project-based alternative to the program offered at the West Tisbury School, serving the children of Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury,” the report said.

“While we agree that a look at enrollment figures is important, they are both volatile and a bit misleading,” according to the report, which notes that based on current projections, there is no apparent reason to assume that West Tisbury school enrollment, and with it costs, will increase. “As a matter of fact, in three years there may be a net decrease in the West Tisbury School’s population.”

“When Chilmark entered the UIRSD, it did so with the express understanding that the Chilmark School would be the smaller of the two schools, offering a choice for parents whose children might thrive in its more intimate atmosphere. Never did we think that just a few years into its existence, UIRSD members from West Tisbury would be calling for its closure.”

The committee said it shares the concern of the cost per student in the UIRSD: “We believe the overall increase in the costs of operating the West Tisbury site are based not only on the declining enrollment, but also on the school committee’s decision to expand programming, as well as the astronomical growth in the shared-services budget. Looking at the assessment model may be low-hanging fruit, but fails to address much larger and continually growing sources of our expanding budget. We encourage the UIRSC members to continue to analyze both the site budgets within the district as well as the Shared Services budget at the All-Island School Committee level.”

‘Hostile environment’

Ms. Murphy told selectmen the disagreement over costs “has created a hostile environment for the Chilmark School administrators and staff alike, who have been put in the position of having to defend and justify their very existence.”

“The assumptions are based on the fact that Chilmark should just close its doors and merge with the West Tisbury School,” Bill Rossi said. “We have put on the table that that is a nonstarter. It’s not going to happen; Chilmark’s not ready for that.”

“We need to look at whether or not the current formula is fair,” Mr. Rossi said. “One of the things I wanted to know was, is it costing Chilmark more money to be in the district than if we were independent and just running the school on our own?”

Ms. Murphy replied they did not get to that.

“This is a discussion that should happen with the real players,” Ms. Murphy said.

“The idea is not that we withdraw, the idea is not that they withdraw, the idea is what do we have to do to get good-quality education for the district,” Mr. Malkin said.

Mr. Rossi agreed, but raised financial concerns.

“The way I understand it, we’re looking at it strictly in dollars and cents. What is the burden to them, in their minds, for the Chilmark School?” Mr. Rossi said. “I asked them to propose a formula to us if they feel it’s unfair.”

“We want to be part of the region, and we are devoted to keeping our school in place where it is,” Ms. Murphy said. “The point of the district was to help West Tisbury with the capital costs on that building project. We were all planning for much bigger school populations than we currently have. The real nugget for staying in the district is we would have a permanent home for our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. That is key.”

Selectmen will send a note to West Tisbury selectmen and copy Aquinnah selectmen on the proposal to get the three towns together.

Single tax rate approved

Also Tuesday, selectmen approved a single tax rate for the town. The five classes of real estate are residential, open space, commercial, industrial, and personal property. As 98 percent of Chilmark is residential, Assistant assessor Pam Bunker told selectmen that “there is not enough commercial property in town to have this be an option which would benefit the residential class.”

Ms. Bunker also reported that the total value of the town for fiscal year 2017 is $3,159,458,900 and that the average assessment is $1,350,000, an increase of $25,000 or 1.9 percent over fiscal year 2016. The current tax rate is $2.71 per $1,000.