High School cost-sharing debate searches for common goal

MVRHS regional subcommittee trying to bring six towns together.

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The elephants in the room prevailed on Tuesday.

After an hour of discussion Tuesday morning, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School regional agreement subcommittee agreed to meet July 11 at 9 am, after failing to move the needle on key agenda items. One of the issues was changing the assessment formulas for the six individual towns, as well as how representatives should be selected for membership on the subcommittee.

The group did agree that efforts to clean up language in the nearly 60-year-old agreement were right and proper.

Only five of the six towns were represented at the meeting — Aquinnah was absent — but the longstanding elephants in the room, related to both history and individual towns’ rights and responsibilities, were present, as town officials and committee members jousted civilly about their shares of the MVRHS cost pie.

Undercurrents of divided opinion, articulated in asides but only incidentally from the floor, point to vast differences in wealth within the six Island communities, and the affordability of assessments for those wealthy towns compared with financially strapped towns like Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, who currently contribute 52.5 percent of high school students. Edgartown kids are 26 percent of the high school population, West Tisbury is at 15.7 percent, Chilmark at 4.3 percent, and Aquinnah nearly 2 percent of the high school population. Their state-mandated formula assessments reflect their high school population percentage almost perfectly.

Then there was the matter of history. Oak Bluffs finance committee member Maura McGroarty noted that Oak Bluffs contributed 90 acres of land over the past 60 years for the high school campus and other organizations, and is responsible for providing support services for which it receives no compensation.

“That land is off the tax rolls, and Oak Bluffs will always have a responsibility for providing the services. I’ve come to feel super-defensive about this,” she said.

Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck rejoined that when the land was transferred, “Oak Bluffs could have had a $400,000 benefit, but didn’t pass it. The cost per student is $28,853, and under the statutory formula, we are pretty close to that now. That formula got the high school off the ground, and that formula will be used going forward,” he said.

“If I were Edgartown, I would feel that way, but there is additional cost that is hidden and will continue to be [in place],” McGroarty said.

Subcommittee chairman Amy Houghton raised the issue of election of subcommittee members, noting suggestions that regional agreement representatives be elected Islandwide rather than appointed by towns, to provide an Islandwide perspective without “the inherent conflicts of interest that are bound to arise.”

That agenda item got little traction after several comments that indicated town residents would be uncomfortable being represented by members from other towns.

School Superintendent Matt D’Andrea and Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith took the tack that the Island education system ought to be looked at before changes in assessments are considered. D’Andrea even said the R-word, regionalization: “When I was hired I was told there is no appetite for regionalization. Don’t raise it … and I haven’t. But I don’t want us held back because we haven’t explored it. It’s something to entertain.”

Smith said his experience in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs schools and as assistant superintendent has led him to believe that the disparity in the numbers of students is the issue that will compel change.

Mark Friedman, MVRHS finance manager, prepared four different assessment plans for the committee’s review. In opening remarks, Friedman said, “I sense that things are different this year from the nine other budget cycles I’ve worked on.”

He said the difference seems to be in the $25 million to $75 million needed to upgrade the nearly 60-year-old high school, in addition to operating costs.

“All of the towns have always been generous in supporting our operating budget, but we’re encountering resistance to the capital needs for upgrading the school,” he said. Town meetings in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury this year resisted efforts to establish a line item, without funding, in the MVRHS budget.

Edgartown selectman Margaret Serpa offered a pragmatic assessment: “The last high school upgrade was in 1995. Would you wait 23 years if it were your own house?”

Friedman’s exhaustive analysis produced a menu of options for assessing costs, including the current statutory model, the regional agreement formula, a three-year averaging formula, and several iterations of assessed property values, including a 50/50 enrollment and assessed town property value. Other options were based on certified budgets and on capital debt service, maintenance, and operations.

Members agreed to study and digest the material before the July 11 meeting that West Tisbury member Jeffrey S. (“Skipper”) Manter suggested “ought to be a workshop” in format.

At the end of the meeting, Houghton summarized the subcommittee challenge as she did in opening. “We have to be on the same page. Ultimately nothing can be done here unless we share a solid vision,” she said.