Ups, downs in school charges
Winners, losers, but total bill rises 1.9%
Fiscal year 2010 assessments for the regional high school sent to Island town officials last week reflect significant fluctuations, from an increase of more than $270,000 for Edgartown to a decrease of $145,000 for West Tisbury. Overall, for all six towns, the jump is 1.9 percent.
Assessments will increase by $199,231 for Oak Bluffs and $6,048 for Aquinnah, and decrease by $46,869 for Chilmark and $49,527 for Tisbury.
The town assessments were determined on the basis of preliminary estimates of Chapter 70 school aid and net school spending requirements issued by the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on January 28.
The DESE website notes that despite deep cuts in other local aid, Governor Deval Patrick's proposed FY10 state budget level-funds each school district's Chapter 70 aid at its FY09 amount.
After receiving funding information from the state last week, Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) business administrator Amy Tierney figured the Island's town assessments by using the state's statutory assessment formula.
"We're using the same statutory formula we used the last two years, and if the amount of Chapter 70 money they're giving us is the same, it's hard to explain and for people to understand why the assessments vary," Ms. Tierney said last Friday. "However, local contributions have changed because of changes in wealth, income, municipal growth, and enrollment. I haven't been able to study all the details at this point but I can see some of the towns are coming closer together like we expected them to, while some are moving further apart."
"Local contributions" are amounts determined by the State as the minimum each town must contribute towards education, and a "foundation budget" is the adequate level of spending for a school district, Ms. Tierney explained.
The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District school committee voted to certify the high school's FY10 budget on Dec. 1, 2008. Total operating expenses came in at $16,460,783, a 1.74-percent increase over FY09, and total assessed expenses at $12,479,121, a 1.93-percent increase over last year.
Town assessments were put on hold, pending notification about Chapter 70 aid and net school spending requirements from the state. In the meantime, however, with the budget certified, the school committee voted unanimously to recommend the state's statutory formula to the towns for apportioning the costs.
The Island towns formerly used a regional formula based on a per-pupil cost. The state's mandated statutory assessment formula is an "aggregate wealth model" that takes property values and personal income levels into account.
Under regulations approved by the state Board of Education in January 2007, school committees must vote on which formula to recommend to their member towns. In order to stick to the Island's former regional agreement, all six towns would have to agree. The statutory formula, however, requires approval by four out of the six towns.
In 2007, the first time the state's statutory formula was used to determine Island town assessments for FY08, Oak Bluffs' assessment decreased by $435,000, while Tisbury's increased by $241,000. The disparity in town assessments under the statutory formula resulted in a fractured and contentious budget process.
Oak Bluffs subsequently rejected the high school's FY08 budget, which the school committee had approved based on the Island's regional assessment formula. The Island towns' failure to reach a unanimous agreement resulted in forcing the school committee to go back and redo the town assessments using the statutory formula.
Given that experience, the regional high school committee voted last February to recommend using the state statutory formula for determining town assessments in the FY09 budget, as well.
Last week's notification about the FY10 assessments comes at a time when Island towns are struggling with budgets in the face of declining revenues and possible deficits.
However, despite the sizable increases for Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, town leaders said this week they were not surprised.
"Our population went up at the high school, and that would indicate our share of the budget will go up commensurately," Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck explained. The number of high school students from Edgartown rose from 182 in 2007 to 191 in 2008. "We know in October, actually, what the school population is, so you know what your percentage is going to be. By November you pretty much know where the high school budget will be, and so you have an idea of what the assessments will be."
Mr. Smadbeck said Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby tentatively planned for a 10-percent rise in the town's high school assessment, factoring in possible cuts in state aid and the increased number of high school students.
The number of students attending the high school from West Tisbury, which showed the biggest decrease among the towns' assessments, dropped from 130 in 2007 to 109 in 2008.
Enrollment also was a factor in the Oak Bluffs assessment, according to town administrator Michael Dutton. The number of high school students from Oak Bluffs went up from 203 in 2007 to 215 in 2008.
"Although they used the state assessment method and not the regional assessment method, our population still plays a big role in that, and knowing our population went up, we were expecting an increase," Mr. Dutton said. "It didn't come as a huge surprise. It was a little more than we anticipated, but we did anticipate a sizable increase."
However, as Mr. Dutton pointed out, the increase in the Oak Bluffs assessment would have been higher using the Island's regional formula, by about $225,000.
Edgartown also would pay more, about $58,000, under the regional agreement.