To the Editor:
Last week the West Tisbury FinCom, and later the Chilmark Fincom were presented with the budget for the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD). In advance of those meetings, I was informed by a concerned voter and prominent West Tisbury town figure of concerns about the school budget.
The West Tisbury FinCom has asked the school committee to make a “catch-up payment” so that the currently $14 million unfunded liability for “other post-employment benefits” (OPEB) keeps the principal amount from growing any further. Their hope was that the catch-up payment could be made from the district’s excess and deficiency (E&D) account, sort of similar to a town’s “free cash’”account. Due to costs and expenses which will predominantly consume the E&D account, this will not be possible.
The maintenance and capital improvement projects that were bond-financed last year did not have adequate contingencies built in, which was an oversight on part of the school administration and school committee, at a cost of approximately $300,000. In addition, the district was required to place a student in a residential placement program off-Island at an annual cost in excess of $200,000. Combining these with ordinary salary increases and health-insurance cost hikes, it is not possible to fund the OPEB catch-up payment out of the school budget without a dramatic effect on programming at the school, and a series of staff cuts.
The FinComs and town accountants have been aware of this issue for months. The school committee agrees with the West Tisbury FinCom that this catch-up payment is essential to keep the principal amount from growing any further, and that with a rational plan, we can whittle away at this obligation in a reasonable fashion. The obligation to pay for these post-employment benefits has been getting kicked down the road for many, many years, and the voters and taxpayers have enjoyed a lower tax cost at the expense of this ballooning obligation, pushing it onto the current and future generations of up-Island taxpayers. Both pension benefits and maintenance at the schools have been deferred for too long, which is why we are also confronted with a series of costly projects to bring the buildings up to current health and safety codes.
My opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of my colleagues on the school committee, is that we should let the voters decide if they want to adequately fund the OPEB obligation now, so that the principal balance is put in check. I think our administrators, teachers, parents, students, and voters benefit greatly from the educational programs and support that the towns provide. We achieve excellence in many areas; not all, but many, in my opinion. This all comes at a cost — and I don’t think we are wasteful, nor are we perfect. I can see both sides of this issue, and I think it’s time to bring it to a head and let the voters decide. We either want to strive for providing excellence in education and give the younger generation all of the tools they will need as they go on in their careers both on and off the Island, or we need to cut programming and staff to cut our budget because the voting taxpayers don’t want to pay for these costs: This is what it boils down to, in my opinion.
I deeply hope that all voters attend and are heard at the upcoming annual town meeting, and if need be, at the subsequent ballot box, and that they give us a resounding answer. It’s our town, It’s our school; they are our children.
Mr. Marcus is chair of the Up-Island Regional School Committee, but submitted his letter only as a resident of West Tisbury. —Ed.