Authors Posts by Nis Kildegaard

Nis Kildegaard

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Robert C. Cleasby, director of programs for the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association, retrieved his trademark crimson trousers from the cleaners last week and made the annual trip from his Rhode Island home to Oak Bluffs. Here, on Saturday night, July 3, he’ll open the Association’s 175th summer season by introducing one of his favorite groups to perform in the historic Tabernacle: the Island Community Chorus.

“I think this is great,” Mr. Cleasby says. “I’m a choral director. And the Tabernacle was built for singing. How could it be any better?”

The relationship between the Chorus and the Camp-Meeting Association was cemented more than a decade ago, when Mr. Cleasby was artistic director of the West Bay Chorale in Warwick, R.I. “I invited the Chorus to come to Providence one May to join us in our spring concert,” he recalls, “and then the Chorus reciprocated and asked us to join them in their performance at the Tabernacle.”

Ever since, Mr. Cleasby has been a great fan of the Chorus and its artistic director, Peter Boak. “At one point,” he says, “I even tried to pursue the idea of repeating the July concert in August, but that never worked out. I’m just sorry the August people don’t get to hear the Chorus, too.”

At no other moment in the Vineyard year do the year-round and summer communities come together under such distinctly festive circumstances. Says Mr. Cleasby: “This really is the only chance for our summer people to hear the fine chorus that is singing here on the Island year-round.”

For the members of the Island Community Chorus, says Mr. Boak, the affection for this summer tradition runs strong. “Our singers love this concert,” he says. “The Whaling Church, where we sing in the winter and spring, is a Vineyard landmark, too. But somehow the Tabernacle is associated more with summer on the Island, and it has this whole rich history of the Community sings.”

Mr. Boak begins every March, before the spring concert, to select choral music for the Tabernacle performance. The mood he’s looking for is almost that of a Boston Pops concert — “a lighter concert, something that goes hand-in-hand with the feelings we all have at the beginning of summertime on the Island.”

For material this year, Mr. Boak has reached into the Island Chorus archives to revive a medley of songs from “Les Miserables,” the popular musical. “I thought it was time to pull it out again and dust it off,” he says, noting that it’s been five or six years since the Chorus has sung this music

Rollicking gospel tunes are on the program, and a hauntingly lovely setting of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, sung in French. But Mr. Boak is most excited about presenting a piece he recently discovered, and which the Chorus has never undertaken before: a Dave Brubeck arrangement of the powerful Langston Hughes poem, “I Dream a World.”

There’s a bit of a local connection here, says Mr. Boak. “Langston Hughes was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and of course the author Dorothy West was an important figure in that movement, and she lived out her life in Oak Bluffs.”

At Saturday’s concert a free-will offering will be gathered, with the proceeds shared by the Island Community Chorus and the Camp-Meeting Association. The Chorus puts the money it gathers after expenses into its Peter Boak Scholarship Fund. This year’s recipient, Hannah Marlin of Vineyard Haven, a 2010 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, will be singing a piece at the Tabernacle event.

The Camp-Meeting Association puts the revenue into its program fund, which Mr. Cleasby describes as “our risk capital for the next year. This enables us to bring talent to the Tabernacle that we think will work well. But of course, you never know.”

Mr. Cleasby, who spent his career as an educator, sees the Island Community Chorus as living proof of how important art and music education are in our schools today. “I used to have friendly arguments with the athletics people,” he says, “because at my school, athletics was king. I’d say to them, what are your people going to be doing when they’re 45? Not playing football — they’re going to be sitting in a chair with a can of beer, watching football. My people — they’re just getting warmed up.”

Island Community Chorus, at the Tabernacle on the Campground in Oak Bluffs, 8 p.m., Saturday, July 3. No admission charge; a free-will offering will be taken.

Nis Kildegaard is a regular columnist of the Martha’s Vineyard Times. He sings in the Island Community Chorus and serves on its board.

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I visited with Jim Weiss, our superintendent of schools, not long after the flap that played out on the front pages of both Island newspapers over a few students who wanted to wear their Brazilian national colors on graduation day. I didn’t want to hear any more about that dust-up, except that it provided a perfect opportunity to ask: Why doesn’t the press cover public education better?

Mr. Weiss had a ready reply: “Controversy makes news. The fact that we do a million things every day with 2,400 kids doesn’t matter — it’s when something goes awry.”

What I did want to ask about is the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, which is offering millions of dollars in prize money to states that follow its prescription for school reform. Central to that reform effort is teacher accountability — the idea that school districts need better ways to assess teacher performance, and that administrators need authority to remove teachers who aren’t getting the job done.

To appreciate how revolutionary this is, you need to understand that seniority is a pillar of teacher union contracts across the United States. Last hired, first fired is the mantra — and after years of this approach, most efforts to assess teacher performance have withered away.

A year and a half ago, the Vineyard schools quietly established new policies for teacher assessment —policies which Mr. Weiss calls an important step in the right direction. “We’ve done two things, in general terms. We’ve tried to make teacher evaluation a partnership between the evaluator and the evaluatee. It’s not, here’s what I’m going to do to you; it’s what we’re going to do together. And we try to make it more than just a classroom observation visit. We try to make it a way to look at a person’s total work over a period of time.

“This is a work in progress until everybody gets the bugs worked out, but I think it’s a much more significant way of looking at teacher evaluation and supervision.”

Teacher evaluation in the Island schools, Mr. Weiss says, is a story with two chapters: What administrators can do during the first three years of a teacher’s tenure, and what they can do after teachers attain what the system calls “professional status,” which makes them much more difficult to remove.

“I think we make some good decisions early on,” he says, “in terms of inviting people back or not inviting them back. At that stage it’s simpler to do, and you don’t need such huge documentation. I think we make those decisions relatively well.”

In the past, Mr. Weiss says, evaluations of Island teachers have suffered from the Lake Wobegon effect: “Everyone was more wonderful than the next person.” Breaking with this approach, he says, will take awhile. “Change is not going to happen overnight — because we have 25 years of, everybody’s wonderful. But I believe we now have the tools in place where, if we have a teacher who’s not doing the job, we can take care of that.”

Taking care of a weak teacher doesn’t have to mean firing. It can mean professional development, or a lateral move within the school system. “Just because someone is no longer doing a great job in one role,” says Mr. Weiss, “doesn’t mean there can’t be another role for them. We have enough staff positions that we could find things for people who are at a point where they need to continue working a few more years, to take care of their finances, but doing a different kind of job. We need to find ways to do that.”

Across the United States, school districts seeking tools for teacher evaluation have seized on standardized test scores. But Mr. Weiss warns that MCAS tests are ill-suited for assessing teachers. “The MCAS looks at last year’s group of third-graders, and then at this year’s group of third-graders, and it says, ‘Last year’s group and this year’s group weren’t at all alike.’ Well, tell me something I don’t know.”

He’s heartened by the push for what educators call “value-added testing,” an approach that measures student progress through a school year. With value-added testing, “You look at little Johnny at one point this year and at another point next year and you ask, how much progress has he made?”

Asked to give the present MCAS tests a letter grade, Mr. Weiss suggests C-minus or D-plus. “The potential is there, but we’re not reaching it. I think that if the MCAS continues to move toward measuring the progress of students over time, it will be much better than it is now. But the way it has been, to date, has been less than helpful.”

Mr. Weiss wants to be clear: He does not believe that giving Island administrators the tools to move weak teachers out of the classroom is an urgent priority. “Speaking from my perspective of 40-odd years in this business,” he says, “Martha’s Vineyard is blessed by one of the better staffs I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I didn’t say the best — I didn’t say everybody is great — but one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

“I don’t think this is as significant an issue here as it is in some places. I think we have a handful of folks who probably should be doing something else. If there’s even one person, we should do something about it, but I don’t think it’s this pervasive problem for us.”

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Tammy King serves hors d'oeuvres with a smile at the annual Sail Martha's Vineyard benefit dinner and auction. — File photo by Susan Safford

The nonprofit organizations of Martha’s Vineyard deliver our babies and sit with us when we’re dying. They come rushing to our homes when they catch fire, counsel us when the stresses of Island life become overwhelming, and help us donate life-giving blood when we’re feeling generous and strong.

The nonprofits of Martha’s Vineyard provide healthy places for our children to play, and safe housing for our elderly residents in their later years. They feed us when we’re hungry for a meal, and they dance and sing for us when we need higher nourishment. They work to preserve our historic landmarks and protect the natural beauty of the Island’s wild places, and they build affordable housing that sustains our community’s human ecology.

And yet, we persist in thinking of nonprofits as a narrow, somehow oddball sector on the fringes of the Island economy. The very definition we use to describe these essential organizations begins with a negative: “non.”

Nonprofits, by definition, are enterprises “not commercially motivated.” But this obscures what does motivate our nonprofits: a sense of mission, the conviction that their work, all money matters aside, is meaningful and nourishing and essential to the health of our community.

For the essence of what it means to be a nonprofit, consider this from the most recent annual report of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital: In its most recent fiscal year, the hospital dispensed more than $6 million in uncompensated care. Retail shop owners talk of “shrinkage,” the cost of goods that walk out of the store without being paid for, but what enterprise in its right mind would put up with losses of $6 million per year? Only one whose mission statement declares, as our hospital’s does, that its care to patients “will be provided to all, regardless of their ability to pay.”

In any arena of Vineyard life, think of the work that’s expensive, that meets a clear need, that’s not likely to be profitable in its own right. Look around and you’ll find that work being done by an Island nonprofit.

The fiscal tripod

Guidestar, an essential Internet tool if you’re studying nonprofit organizations, keeps a database that’s searchable by zipcode. Run the numbers, and you’ll find more than 300 nonprofits listed on Martha’s Vineyard.

On its website, the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative — a sort of meta-nonprofit set up several years ago to support the community’s nonprofit sector —101 Island nonprofits are listed. They’re a varied lot, at work in fields that range from arts and culture to health and human services, environmental conservation, education and recreation. Their annual budgets range from tens of millions to mere thousands of dollars, but for every Island nonprofit the financial challenge is essentially the same: How can we make enough money at our work this year, so we can still be around next year?

For almost every Island nonprofit, the solution involves the same basic tripod of financial support: fees for services, charitable support, and special summer events. The relative strength of each leg in this financial tripod varies widely from organization to organization, but the basic structure is remarkably consistent.

The Vineyard Nursing Association (VNA), the Island’s primary home health care agency, is a good example. In its most recent annual statement, the VNA reports about $3.3 million in revenue, 89 percent of it from the fees it charges for services. Medicare is the agency’s largest funding source, and private health insurance comes next. Grants and public health funding provide about two percent of the agency’s revenues. And fundraising —approximately $300,000 of it in the most recent fiscal year — provides about eight percent. That’s a small fraction, but enough to make the critical difference between black ink and red ink on the agency’s bottom line.

The charitable support that tips the VNA from operating deficit to a modest surplus comes from two legs of the financial tripod — outright gifts to the agency, and profits from special events. The nursing association’s signature event is its annual clambake, set for July 21 this year at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury. It’s a festive occasion of the sort that is repeated with variations, dozens of times, in the brief window of July and early August: catered food and libations under a big white tent, followed by live and silent auctions.

Summer’s calendar is a parade of similar events, from the Taste of the Vineyard on June 17 to Sail MV’s Seafood Buffet and Auction on July 10, the Featherstone at Farm Neck celebration on July 12, the MV Museum’s Evening of Discovery on July 15, the annual golf tournament to benefit Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on July 18 and 19, and the Possible Dreams Auction on August 2.

It’s no accident that most of the major fundraisers are packed into July and over by mid-August. Island nonprofits are leery of donor fatigue, and plan their events to get at the big givers before that syndrome sets in. (But even the Oak Bluffs fireworks on August 20 and the Agricultural Fair on August 19 through 22, traditional events that sound the summer season’s ending bell, are the projects of Island nonprofits.)

These celebrations do more than raise money for the Island’s helping organizations. They build social connections, fostering a vital sense of community and goodwill. But each major summer shindig is also a drain on staff and volunteer time; planning for next year’s event often begins as this year’s party tent is being packed away. And there’s the question of efficiency: An outright donation goes straight to the bottom line, while a party’s profits must be measured against expenses.

Fundraising dynamics

It’s understating the case to say that the job of raising money for the Island’s nonprofits has gotten harder over the past couple of years. Responding to a survey by the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative last fall, more than half the Island’s health and human services agencies reported that summer donations in 2009 were down, and nearly a third said giving was down dramatically. This trend comes against a harsh backdrop of community need: In the survey, more than two-thirds of the same health and human services agencies said they’d seen the demand for their services rise during the economic downturn.

Stuck in the middle — between the directors and staff who steer an organization’s path and the donors who support it — are the hard working development directors of the Island’s nonprofits. Just imagine the anxiety of that position — with no control over how well or poorly your enterprise is run, and no control over the purse-strings of the big donors, yet knowing you’ll be judged by the dollars you bring in to keep your nonprofit running.

One such director of development for a multi-million-dollar Island nonprofit agreed to speak for this story, without being named. She cited a trifecta of causes that have had a dampening effect on donations, changing the climate for all the Vineyard’s helping organizations.

First, she said, there’s the economic downturn, which has not only erased a lot of wealth — it has also created paper losses that donors can use to reduce their income taxes. “Now, donors don’t need charitable contributions to offset their income. In fact, they can carry the losses in their stock portfolios over for a number of years. Before, not only was there an altruistic interest in giving, there was a personal benefit, and even a necessity in some cases, to giving big money. Now that’s not true.”

Second, major Island capital campaigns — for the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the YMCA — have sucked more than $50 million out of the charitable pond.

And third, a few prominent Island nonprofits have been making news in the past year — in stories that raise questions about the quality of their governance, their leadership, and even their viability. This makes donors ask tougher questions, the development director said: “They have concerns about some Island organizations maybe not living up to their promises, and they need to feel that what they’re supporting is something that’s not just sending their dollars slipping down the drain.”

Narrative and substance

Nonprofit organizations are expected to tell their stories in the most glowing terms possible, but when the narrative gets too far from the reality, this can backfire. Just look at the Island Affordable Housing Fund, which one year was trumpeting $1 million in pledges from a summer fundraising campaign, and the next was announcing it couldn’t make its payments to the Rental Assistance Program. Scenarios like this can have a chilling effect on giving that affects nonprofits across the Island.

In the end, said our source, it’s not about the narrative, but about the substance of an organization’s work: “If you don’t have a good business model that looks like it has longevity, and if you don’t have a demonstrated need for your program or services, and if you can’t show that your services are not being duplicated elsewhere and that you’re collaborating with others to deliver those services more efficiently, then you’re not going to get much support.

“But if you can sit down with someone and say look, our organization is strong, the need for our services is demonstrated and clear, and this is how we’re working with other organizations across the Island to make sure there’s a continuum of service in whatever the field is, whether it’s health care or education or conservation —then donors will support you.”

Nis Kildegaard is a regular columnist for the Times. He has done editorial and consulting work for many Island nonprofit organizations, including the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Sail MV, COMSOG, Vineyard House, Affordable Housing Fund, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. He serves on the boards of two nonprofits, the Island Community Chorus and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society, and he chairs the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, which dispenses grants each year to Island projects in the arts and humanities.

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The film series of the Summer Institute at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center opens its 10th anniversary season this Sunday, June 20, with the screening of “Wondrous Oblivion,” a favorite film from the archives of the Boston Jewish Film Festival (BJFF). Seven more films in the series will follow, on Sundays through August 15.

This summer tradition at the Hebrew Center began when the first films from the Boston festival were brought to the Island by Laura Roskind, Ruth Sebell, and the late Norman Sebell. All three were members of the Island congregation; Ms. Roskind was also a member of the BJFF board.

Last year, the Hebrew Center’s movie venue received its biggest boost ever, with a major gift that made possible the Harriet B. Freedberg Learning Center. Audiences this summer will enjoy the fruits of the winter’s work, which includes a commercial-grade digital projector, new sound amplifiers, and a new 12-foot screen.

The Summer Institute film series is entitled, “The Best of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.” Each year, the Boston organization considers some 400 films and presents about a tenth of them in its November festival. Each year, a committee from the Summer Institute culls those selected films down to a list of eight for the summer series.

The selection committee is headed by Shelly Eckman and includes Joann Green Breuer, Helene Lapman, and Dale Mnookin. Ms. Eckman is a social psychologist who conducts research on consumer behavior. “The Summer Institute,” she says, “has a very intelligent, well-traveled audience. This makes the job more challenging as the audience is so knowledgeable.”

In her two years of selecting films, Ms. Eckman has learned that there’s a difference between watching movies for enjoyment and watching them with an eye toward building a series. “I’m not thinking about movies that are just going to please me,” she says. “I’m thinking about movies that will appeal to a broad audience.

“We’re always looking for films that are entertaining, intelligent and insightful. We try to balance the program between dramas, comedies, and documentaries.”

Sara L. Rubin, artistic director of the BJFF, has attended a number of screenings at the Hebrew Center over the past 10 years, and says she has enjoyed watching the Vineyard program grow.

“It’s always such a joy to see people enjoying a film,” Ms. Rubin says. “One of the things films do so well is give people a sense of community. It’s a shared experience. Martha’s Vineyard is its own wonderful community, and the film community within that is great.

“An audience is such an organic thing. I can watch a screening by myself and I might not laugh out loud, but somehow there’s something that happens when the whole audience laughs. And of course these films generate discussion. You don’t have to rush off right afterwards.”

“Wondrous Oblivion,” the season opener, is set in England in the 1960s and follows a cricket-obsessed boy who unwittingly gets caught up in racial tensions when he befriends his new Jamaican neighbors. Variety Magazine has praised the film for its “wonderfully observed comic moments.” The San Francisco Chronicle describes it as “a gentle fable, full of wit and charm.”

Documentaries, comedies, and dramas are on the calendar as this season’s series unfolds. The entire lineup of Summer Institute films, as well as the list of Speaker Series programs at the Hebrew Center, is posted on the Center’s website, mvhc.us/summer_institute.htm. All films are presented Sunday evenings at 7:30, and admission is $10.

Nis Kildegaard is a regular columnist for the Times, and is publicist for the Summer Institute programs this season.

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I heard this story 25 or 30 years ago, when the Island chiefs of police would gather once a month or so over coffee or sandwiches to talk shop and share information. At one winter meeting, the conversation turned to a rash of break-ins and burglaries from the shuttered homes of summer people.

One chief asked another, “What do you have on this?” — and they went around the table, each briefly laying out the evidence his officers had gathered.

At some point in this conversation there came a silence. (I like to imagine it as a sheepish silence, but I wasn’t there, and I’m not sure police chiefs can even do sheepish.) The Island chiefs realized that the puzzle pieces they’d just shared made a complete picture. They had solved the case over coffee. Arrests were made, and the string of burglaries was over.

This story has become a touchstone in my thinking about regionalism — also known as the R word — and all the controversy that attends it here on Martha’s Vineyard. Another touchstone for me is the memory of a drive across Minnesota and Iowa to visit family there.

When you’re driving across the Midwest, a town is an event. The miles of feed corn are punctuated by speed warnings and signposts at the town limits — Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Chatfield, Preston (you might miss Preston if you’re adjusting your radio at the time). But for most of the miles, you’re not in any town at all. As Kevin Costner said in “Field of Dreams”: “This is Iowa.”

There are places on Martha’s Vineyard where you can play a sort of municipal Twister and touch three towns at once. But there’s nowhere you can be, in all of Massachusetts, that’s just plain Massachusetts: Every inch of our state belongs to one incorporated town or another. This arrangement, unique to New England, profoundly shapes the way we see our Island.

If you want to be a successful problem on Martha’s Vineyard, like that burglar of thirty years ago, your best strategy is to be no respecter at all of town boundaries. Because once you begin to cross jurisdictions, Islanders will have all sorts of difficulties making you go away. They might worry about you, the problem, but chances are good they’ll worry more about getting the short end of any regional deal and about being told what to do by someone from outside of town.

Say, for example, that the problem you want to be is water pollution, and your choices for where to plant yourself are the Edgartown Great Pond or the Lagoon. Which should you choose for a long and happy career?

If you chose the Great Pond, your future doesn’t look good. Because Edgartown Great Pond lies entirely in Edgartown (hence the name, and all that). More importantly, the watershed which feeds pollutants into the pond also lies in Edgartown. And best of all, the Island’s biggest municipal wastewater treatment plant sits conveniently nearby, ready to collect the sewage and clean it. Thanks to the initiatives voted by Edgartown citizens at town meeting this April, pollution in Edgartown Great Pond is basically doomed.

If you chose the Lagoon as your place to be the problem, you can hope for a longer, happier life. Because Oak Bluffs on one side and Tisbury on the other both contribute pollution to the pond, and mitigating that pollution will be a costly effort that will require cooperation between them. Hey, you could be around for years.

Regionalism is a funny issue here on the Vineyard — people have strong sentiments on the subject, but you don’t hear many intelligent conversations about it. That’s partly because regionalism, even when it’s a good idea, can be done badly, and this gives the word a bad name.

Bad regionalism, I’d suggest, is what happens when we forget that the further we sit from where services are actually delivered and where work actually gets done — the further we are from where the proverbial rubber meets the road — the less useful our contributions are apt to be.

Good regionalism happens when the decisions are local, but the information doesn’t stop at town lines. When an Oak Bluffs board learns from a mistake made by its counterpart in Edgartown, or when West Tisbury steals a great idea from Vineyard Haven — that’s good regionalism.

Some of the most pressing problems on Martha’s Vineyard will not yield to anything less than cooperative effort from all the Island towns. Other problems lend themselves to single-town solutions, but even in these cases we don’t need to be reinventing the wheel, or repeating each other’s mistakes, nearly as often as we do.

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The director of an Island nonprofit with whom I meet every week looked out from his office window a month ago and surveyed a raw, drizzly, early-spring morning. “You know,” he remarked, “there’s a reason people don’t come to the Vineyard at this time of year.”

A month later, on the first weekend of May, I bicycled a balmy lap around the State Forest and, in a 20-mile outing, encountered only two other cyclists. People don’t exactly throng to the Vineyard at this time of year, either, and you can’t entirely blame the weather.

Bolstering the so-called shoulder seasons of the Vineyard year has been the holy grail of economic development around here ever since there was a season to tack shoulders onto. The first major effort at seasonal shoulder-padding was the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, hatched as a fall promotion in 1946 by an ad man named Sperber who worked for the Island ferry service.

The fishing derby has seen its share of changes — it no longer has a derby dance or a derby march, and it no longer names a derby queen — but the tournament endures: Not only is the derby the definitive event of early fall on the Vineyard, but the organization has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships to Island high school grads.

The Vineyard’s economic cycle follows the academic year (a professor once told me the three best reasons for a career in academia are June, July and August). July and August are hands-down the busiest months of our year, but my candidate for most stressful has to be June — the month of wrenching transition, of hiring and training, and bringing summer enterprises up to speed.

Another transition awaits each Island business at the end of summer — but somehow the adjustments involved in easing up, working less and getting out more are much easier to make than those of June. (Is autumn our favorite season because of its still-warm, crisp days, or because it’s the season when we get our lives back?)

Seasonality is the elephant in the living room of the Vineyard economy. We can talk about its girth and the width of its shoulders, exploring ideas for extending the high season into spring and fall. But the elephant remains. No changes to the endpoints of our busy season will alter the fact of a boom-and-bust cycle that gives us some months when jobs are scarce, and others when employers recruit workers from around the globe — and we’ll still have the rollercoaster cycle of seasonal rents that quadruple and worse.

The Vineyard’s powerful annual rhythm presents so many challenges that it’s easy to forget all the advantages we get from this seasonal arrangement. There’s a reason the Island towns have some of the lowest tax rates in the state — it’s because our seasonal homeowners pay taxes, but don’t use our municipal services for most of the year. We have a brand-new, $42-million Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, a new YMCA center is opening this month, and this community’s most essential nonprofits rely heavily on the generosity of our summer residents.

It’s humbling to realize that although we year-round residents might like to think of ourselves as the vital core of this community, we actually buy only about a third of the goods and services sold on the Vineyard each year. The biggest customers, by far, are seasonal homeowners and their guests — they account for 38 percent of all economic activity on the Island. Seasonal homeowners and short-term visitors (vacationers and day-trippers) together support a whopping 64 percent of the Island’s economy.

Those of us who live here year-round may not be the primary engines of the Vineyard economy, but we are in a real sense the Vineyard’s keepers. Like the caretaker while the owner is away, we have the run of the place for much of the year, and a responsibility to look after it. Seventy cents of every tax dollar may come from summer folks, but it’s the voters at town meeting each year who decide how those dollars will be spent on the things that enrich the public sphere — the things we all enjoy together — from schools to parks, clean water, and public safety.

The seasonality of Vineyard life has its positives and negatives, but the seasons themselves — the changes of the natural year — are one of the great joys of living here. Walking in our neighborhood last week, we noticed little clumps of yellow flowers on trees along the boulevard in Edgartown. I took a photo, and did a bit of online research back at home, and discovered that these flowers — miniature fireworks at the branches’ ends — are from the sassafras tree.

We’ve walked past the sassafras trees each spring for going on thirty years without noticing their flowers before. I wonder, what other beauties of the Vineyard year are blooming in the hectic summer season, while I rush past, too busy to notice?

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The Island Community Chorus got an unexpected gift of time when, just weeks into this rehearsal season, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital rescheduled its grand opening for the weekend of April 10 and 11. The chorus’s spring concerts were bumped back to April 17 and 18, and artistic director Peter Boak promptly raised his expectations and set the bar higher for the weekend performances at the Old Whaling Church.

“We had already started our rehearsals a couple weeks early this year,” says Mr. Boak. “Something I’d done because you never know what the winter weather will be. As it turned out, we had no snow days, and we got an extra pair of rehearsals because of the hospital celebration, so we’ve really had a great opportunity to prepare for this concert.”

Mr. Boak says the chorus has used its extra rehearsals well: “I’ve had a lot more time to work musically, rather than just trying to make sure the notes are right. We can work on nuance and be persnickety about the details. Sometimes in the course of a rehearsal season, I have to move on even when something isn’t quite what I want. I didn’t feel that pressure this time around.”

How will this Saturday and Sunday’s audiences be able to hear the difference? One way, Mr. Boak suggests, is to listen for contrasts in how the choir presents the work of various composers.

“One of the first things I said to the chorus, when we started rehearsing in January for these concerts, was that our job is to make sure the Mozart doesn’t sound like Faure, and Faure doesn’t sound like Haydn. I think we’ve really accomplished that, conveying all these stylistic differences.”

The Island Community Chorus is billing its spring program as a concert of choral masterpieces. The program began to take shape in Mr. Boak’s mind last fall, he says, when he was working with the Federated Church choir to present a piece by Johannes Brahms, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” as a Sunday anthem.

“We had such a good time with the Brahms,” he says. “And it sounded so beautiful, that I kept thinking, ‘I would love to hear the community chorus sing this.’ And with this sound of the Brahms in my head, I started exploring what other pieces would be fun to sing with it. That’s how this program came together for me.”

Among the classics the chorus will present this weekend are works in Latin, Russian, Italian, French, and English. The choir worked with diction coaches Niki Patton on the Italian and Pierre Bonneau on the French, and accompanist Garrett Brown provided a useful recording which helped them with the Russian piece, a modern composition entitled “The Sealed Angel.”

It’s been a great challenge, and Mr. Boak is proud of the hard work the chorus has done to prepare for this concert program. “We really are trying,” he says, “to nail this music as faithfully as we are able to do.”

Island Community Chorus Spring Concert featuring compositions by Brahms, Faure, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Carl Orff, Pietro Mascagni, and Rodion Schedrin: 7:30 pm, Saturday, April 17, and 3 pm, Sunday, April 18, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Suggested donation: $15.

Nis Kildegaard writes a regular column for The Times. He sings in the Island Community Chorus and serves on the organization’s board.

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The best ideas

By Nis Kildegaard

After six weeks of hour-long conversations about the Island Plan, presented this February and March at the Edgartown Library, I come away with two central thoughts.

First, how fortunate we are to have such a reservoir of people who care about this place and are willing to work for its long-term health and sustainability. Second, how many of the best ideas in the Island Plan are tucked away, far from the headlines, in corners of the document.

I’ll remember Tom Chase of The Nature Conservancy and the excitement he expressed about the use of undevelopment and life estates as tools to undo, over the decades ahead, some of the unfortunate decisions we’ve made with regard to land use on the Island.

If you accept that the Monopoly-game phase of the Vineyard’s history is almost over – with conservationists on one side, and developers on the other, scrambling to buy the last remaining squares – then it follows that we’ll need new strategies for the next chapter in Vineyard history. The guess here is that undevelopment, accomplished with the use of life estates, will be one of the best of those new strategies in the decades ahead.

To see these emerging new tools already at work, take a walk on the next fine spring day at Hickory Cove, part of the Land Bank’s 312-acre Three Ponds Reservation on Chappaquiddick. This property, acquired by the Land Bank through a life-estate purchase, once had five buildings on its 20 acres. Now the ridge overlooking Cape Pogue Bay is bare, after a process of undevelopment that involved tearing down some structures, selling another and donating one historic building, the original Chappy schoolhouse, to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust.

The story of Hickory Cove is hardly unique: In recent years, the Land Bank has quietly removed more than 20 structures from properties it has purchased for conservation. The realization that a property with buildings on it can be bought someday, undeveloped, and put into conservation, is game changing. The Land Bank and the Island’s private conservation groups already get this: They have lists of targeted properties – with houses on them – that are prime candidates for conservation, because their purchase would restore healthy function to blocks of habitat that are now fragmented.

In his conversation with me at the library, Tom Chase made it clear that the simple, binary view of land use – it’s either developed (bad) or conserved (good) – is as last-century as Benjamin Boldt, Louis Giuliano and their 200-home subdivisions. Tom prefers to talk about the importance of treading more lightly on the land where we live, allowing native plants to thrive and abandoning the aesthetic of the putting green lawn.

In his session at the library, Henry Stephenson of the Tisbury planning board said flatly that he’s not concerned about the pace of development on Martha’s Vineyard. What he wanted to talk about is the not the last war but the next one – exploring the possibility of fixing some of the bad things we’ve done to the Island’s built environment.

Mr. Stephenson spoke about what the Island Plan calls our community’s “opportunity areas” – areas we got wrong the first time around, but which we can repair over the next generation if we apply ourselves. He brought maps and shared his excitement about the opportunities involved in the diverter road that Tisbury will consider this month between the Edgartown Road and the State Road to West Tisbury.

And Angela Grant, administrator of the Vineyard Transit Authority, discussed the seasonal challenges faced by her agency – carrying half a million passengers in July and August, and another half-million in the other 10 months of the year.

Public transportation, she said, faces a funding crisis over the next few years – and we all need to appreciate that state and federal subsidies pay about two-thirds of every Island bus fare. But when I asked her what we can do as citizens to support public transit here, Ms. Grant didn’t talk about writing to congressmen or the governor. Just buy a pass and take the bus, she said – there’s a huge idle capacity for riders in those quiet 10 months of the off-season.

That comment sent me back to the final chapter of the Island Plan, on implementation of its 207 strategies for improving the Vineyard’s future. Each strategy is laid out in spreadsheet format, with a set of columns under the heading of “Who Could Do It?” There are columns for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Island towns, other government agencies, the nonprofit sector, and the business community. Interestingly, there’s no column for you and me – for the impact that thousands of us, acting as individuals, can have for a better Island future.

Will the Island Plan deflect the supertanker that is Martha’s Vineyard to some new path over the decades ahead? It’s easy to be skeptical about that. But I do hope that when we look back a generation from now, we’ll see dozens of cases where people have grabbed some of the plan’s best ideas and run with them, to the betterment of community life on the Island.

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Since early November, I’ve been working freelance for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to copy-edit and wrestle onto pages the final, printed version of the Island Plan. I note this at the outset so that if you feel my work in this largely mechanical capacity somehow disqualifies me from having a helpful take on the Island Plan, you can turn the page right now.

Having grappled with this document, and having followed the coverage of the Island Plan with interest in our local press, I’ve come up with a sort of parlor trick: I can hand you a draft of the Island Plan, and depending on the two or three sentences I use to introduce it, I can make you like this document or seriously dislike it.

Introduction number one: Over the past four years, the Island Plan project has engaged hundreds of Islanders in spirited conversations about Martha’s Vineyard today, and as it might be in our dreams for the future. Here, in the pages of the printed Island Plan, is a record of this community’s four-year conversation.

Introduction number two: This document, formally adopted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Dec. 10, 2009, is our official regional plan, a blueprint for the Island over the next half-century. The Island Plan outlines more than 200 specific strategies, as well as a process for monitoring their implementation. The document’s subtitle is "Charting the Future of the Vineyard."

What I like most about introduction number one is that it lets the document speak for itself, with all its powerful insights and its occasional oddities and contradictions. What I like least about the second is that it smacks of hubris, the "We’re smarter than you and we’re going to tell you what to do" attitude that epitomizes the MVC at its tone-deaf worst.

The Island Plan explores hard truths that we will have to grapple with as a community if we want to preserve aspects of the Vineyard that we love. Central among these, in my view, is the insight that the level of water protection we’ll need to save our ponds is much higher than what suffices to protect our drinking water supply.

These pages also contain moments of the silliness that results when enthusiasm outruns common sense. Hey, how about promoting energy conservation by letting all Prius owners advance to the front of the Steamship Authority boarding line? And why not give a big boost to public transportation on the Island by coming up with a catchy new name for the Vineyard Transit Authority? Sure, that’ll work.

But such is the nature of a robust conversation. It’s certainly the nature of this Island community. And no public effort in the history of Martha’s Vineyard has ever tried so assiduously to bring both passion and discipline to bear in a conversation about the future.

All through the four years of the Island Plan process, the MVC tried to position this not as an internal project, but as a broad community effort. Suddenly at the end of the process, on December 10, the commissioners sent the wrong message by formally adopting the Plan.

Even as they did so, commissioners took pains to qualify their votes. "If we adopt this, I don’t think it gives us any incredible power," said Ned Orleans of Tisbury, "that all of a sudden we can do whatever we damn please."

Linda Sibley tried to soften the idea of formal adoption by describing the Island Plan as "a living, breathing document." That certainly sounds like the opposite of something chiseled in stone, although I must admit that as the person hired to wrestle it onto pages, I’m not sure exactly what’s involved in designing or laying out a document that breathes.

Even the printed plan straddles this issue of self-definition, describing itself at one point as "the official regional plan," but later as "an iterative process that constantly cycles back to re-imagine and adjust, rather than a static reflection of a moment in time."

In the end, my guess is that the commissioners felt adoption of the Island Plan was a necessary gesture to honor the hard work of everyone who contributed to the project. Certainly the members of all the working groups who volunteered their time to struggle with issues from development to energy and water quality deserve the thanks of the MVC and the Island community.

Very probably, the commissioners also felt the need for some sort of closure at the end of a four-year process. "There has to be a point," Ms. Sibley declared, "where we stop talking about it and adopt it."

This is where I’d disagree. More than a year ago in this space, I quoted a favorite definition from the educator, Parker J. Palmer: "Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline." The insight here is that the pursuit of the truth stops when you close the conversation.

I’m not the author of the Island Plan, only the guy who’s placing the words and pictures onto paper. But if I were allowed to write the final page, I’d say, "Thanks to everyone who participated in this project. Now, let the conversation continue!"

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There’s been a surreal quality to all this past year’s news of economic disasters. The most difficult idea for us to accept on the Island, I think, is that perhaps the value of real estate here won’t continue growing at double-digit rates forever.

The bursting of the real estate bubble has had dramatic effects not only in the private market, but in the public arena where change and uncertainty have combined to spawn both adjustments in current strategies and spirited discussions about future approaches.

At the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, the sharp decline in revenues has put the focus on core priorities – and what’s been lost is the option of spontaneity.

James Lengyel, director of the Land Bank, recently recounted how he and the agency’s commissioners once toured what is now the Blackwater Pond Reservation, where they were negotiating for a trail easement across a property then on the market. The commissioners were so struck by the beauty of the place that they decided, what the heck – let’s buy the whole property.

“Just watching that process,” Mr. Lengyel said, “made me feel that Martha’s Vineyard was so privileged to have an institution that could start with a modest goal, get inspired to a much greater goal and then actually be able to do it. Many other communities would have just looked, and sighed, and said, if only we could have.”

This year, with revenues down by nearly half, the Land Bank won’t have to abandon its long-term goals, but the sort of wonderful impulse purchase that gave us Blackwater Pond is probably out of the question.

Meanwhile, the Island agencies at work on affordable housing have also had to adjust. In one respect, the bursting of the real estate bubble is a good thing, since it reduces the gap between the cost of housing and what working people can afford. But the chasm is far from closed, and the uncertainty of the market can make it hard to know how to proceed.

In Edgartown, arguably the Island town that has attacked the housing problem most vigorously and creatively, voters recently approved the creation of a new entity, the Edgartown Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The town’s affordable housing committee is now discussing how the new trust might spend the $700,000 it has received from developers of the Field Club subdivision at Katama.

The housing trust is a terrific development, full of promise for both Edgartown and the Island. If the trust’s early expenditures are carefully targeted and prove effective, it can be a model for other towns, and an attractive vessel for money from the Community Preservation Act. Remember that the CPA was implemented on the Island amid hopes that it would go mainly for housing, while in fact barely half its funds to date have been used for this purpose.

But is this the moment for Edgartown to jump into the real estate market, snapping up some of the low-hanging fruit and subsidizing properties for resale as affordable homes? Or should the trust sit tight and hope its funds might buy even more a few months from now?

One argument for caution is that Edgartown’s $700,000 is the first payment of a promised $1.8 million – but the next payment won’t be due until a third of the Field Club properties are sold. There’s no telling, in this market, when or even if that next payment will be forthcoming.

So the challenge is to find the balance between creativity and prudence. The housing committee in Edgartown is circulating a survey to assess the need and brainstorming its options, which is exactly the right way to proceed. The guess here is that some of the ways in which this housing trust money is spent will pleasantly surprise us.

Finally, the bursting of the real estate bubble casts an entirely new light on the debate over restrictions designed to keep our community’s housing stock affordable for future generations. The idea of perpetual affordability has been accepted almost universally within the agencies at work in this field, and that’s a good thing. But we still hear complaints that restricting homeowners’ equity growth to four percent per year somehow consigns people to second-class citizenship.

My family’s home in Edgartown – you can look it up in the Vision Appraisal database online – has appreciated at a rate of just over six percent per year since we purchased it in 1981. That’s before you subtract all the costs of home ownership over the years, from the new well and septic to the new windows, flooring, heating systems and roof. If we’d been restricted to a guaranteed growth of four percent per year during this whole historic boom, would that have made us second-class citizens? I don’t think so.

But what about the Island homeowners whose purchases were made five or even 10 years ago? Most would leap today at the guarantee of four percent in equity growth, per year, over that span.

Our whole conversation about affordable housing founders when we start thinking of homes as investments rather than places to live. If our public purpose were simply to make certain individuals wealthy, we could bypass the real estate market, pick out a lucky few and pour Edgartown’s $700,000 into their savings accounts. Make no mistake: Each time you award a $500,000 home for $250,000 and place no restrictions on future resale, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Affordable housing is not about building personal wealth, but rather about preserving a public resource, namely us – the human ecosystem of our community. And regardless of whether the markets rise or drop, our work in this arena will only be real and enduring when we ensure that the public funds we invest in housing today are still at work, supporting year-round Vineyard residents, in generations hence.