The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee is going back to basics in order to understand the language in its 62-year-old regional agreement, which is the tool used to set annual assessments for the six Island towns.
At its meeting last week, attended by selectmen and concerned financial officers and finance committee members from several towns, the MVRHS committee established a subcommittee to undertake a line-by-line review of the 1956 regional cost-sharing agreement, after several members said the document includes unclear language about the allocation process and the rights and responsibilities of the six Island towns and their designated representatives in today’s world.
“The regional agreement was brought to us for review by [Tisbury selectman] Tristan Israel, and we agreed to look at it,” Kris O’Brien, the committee chairman, said. “After discussion we saw we needed to clean up the language first … We can set the budget based on school needs, but we can’t address the funding formulas because that’s up to towns and their voters.”
In December, the MVRHS committee approved a $21.2 million 2018 high school budget for towns to consider.
Part of the issue in the agreement’s language, committee member Robert Lionette said, is that the document is 62 years old and has undergone amendments over the years, most recently in 1994. “The language may not be relevant today,” he said.
For example, a major change in 1989 combined school capital costs and operating costs under a projected enrollment formula. Prior to that, capital costs were calculated for individual towns by a percentage formula.
The move last week follows a vote of the MVRHS school committee in December to undertake review of the agreement. At that time, Amy Houghton, a Tisbury representative on the MVRHS school board, said agreement language relating to “shared costs and allocations may be outdated or not relevant now,” she said.
Houghton envisioned the review being completed in time for 2020 annual town meetings. “My town has asked me to do this, and we should do it now so we have time enough to make thoughtful changes and time to work through this, and in time for towns to plan warrant articles for 2020 town meetings,” she said.
At the meeting last week, Houghton said, “We need to open this document up and look at it. Some of the grammar in here is poor, you can’t understand [the language]. We need to correct language to understand it, then look at allocations.”
The seven- to nine-member subcommittee will meet first on Feb. 6 at 8 am, at a site to be determined, to begin its work.The motion to review the document passed without dissent, and produced a host of committee members and member town officials volunteering to serve on the review committee, with a goal for every town to be represented.
Underlying the urgency for review and change to the agreement was a sense of financial foreboding at the meeting last Thursday over the impact of unexpected increases for a member town in any given year as a result of the current allocation process.
“This is becoming unsustainable for us in Oak Bluffs,” O’Brien declared in opening the discussion of an agreement review.
“We need to put in safeguards,” Houghton said. “It seems seems every town gets hit. Any one of us can get hit in a year.”
Veterans of town government, knowledgeable about the agreement’s early days, weighed in Thursday night on the impact of the allocation process on their towns.
“Oak Bluffs found it irresistible,” Israel said. “They were going to save money. But it has cost Tisbury more over the past 12 years. Last year our assessment went up $750,000. That’s a huge increase.”
Israel volunteered to serve on the subcommittee. “It would be disingenuous of me to walk away from [the problem],” he said.
MVRHS committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter of West Tisbury said his town had funded “free rides” for other towns in the past. “It doesn’t matter how we move allocations around,” Manter said, “some other town will have to pay for it,” adding, “the only way to reduce costs is to spend less.”
In other business, Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said MVRHS will look at other ways to fund a long-awaited renovation of the high school facilities. Mr. D’Andrea told the MVRHS school committee last month that for the third consecutive year, the Massachusetts School Building Authority had not approved the school’s application to fund about 40 percent of renovation costs, thought to be in the $75 million range.
“We’ll continue to apply for funding, but we need to drive our own bus as well,” Mr. D’Andrea said in January. At Thursday’s meeting, he said a proposed private-public arrangement would be considered, as well as establishing a nonprofit 501(c)(3) for fundraising.
The committee observed a moment of silence for deceased MVRHS senior Jake Baird, 17, who died in an auto accident on Jan. 12.