UIRSD still waits for consultant's report
Members of the task group charged with hiring a consultant to review the financial arrangements of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) continue to wait for a final report from consultant Mark Abrahams of the Abrahams Group of Framingham. Mr. Abrahams is a well-respected authority on municipal finance, familiar with Martha's Vineyard and Vineyard schools. At the task group's meeting last Thursday, members expressed frustration and agreed to pressure Mr. Abrahams for a draft of the final report by Dec. 22, or as soon as possible thereafter.
Mr. Abrahams's task is to provide information about the true costs of the UIRSD to those who urge withdrawal from it and those who urge staying. For several years the West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom) has argued that the town would save money by withdrawing, but others in West Tisbury, including the school committee, disagreed. Accurate costs could not be agreed upon. In the spring of 2004, the West Tisbury annual town meeting began a movement to create the task group to hire an independent consultant to provide numbers everyone could trust. At that time the hope was that the study could be completed by the fall of the 2004, in time for towns to plan their FY06 budgets. But the task group did not even begin meeting until the fall of that year, and creating the requests for proposals (RFP) took until the end of the year. A lack of initial responses to the RFP delayed the process still further, and Mr. Abrahams did not sign a contract until March. However, there was hope that his analysis would be available in time for budgeting for FY07.
Perhaps not. The budgeting process is already well underway, and a draft UIRSD budget is already complete. Although Mr. Abrahams made a preliminary report last summer and promised a final report for the fall, he was unable to deliver. By October, Janet Weidner, co-chairman from Chilmark, was telling The Times that she hoped for the report "in early November," but again it has been put off to December, and perhaps beyond.
At the task group's meeting last week, members discussed the delay and the reasons for it. All agreed that the project has turned out to be much more complicated than anyone, including Mr. Abrahams, predicted. Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for financial affairs, has been working with Mr. Abrahams and with the task group. When asked about the time she has spent on the project, she merely shook her head and said, "Far too much."
The task group has also put in long hours. The original contract with Mr. Abrahams asked him to project the FY07 budgets for the UIRSD, but at their meeting last week, the task group was working on reconciling those estimates with the actual FY07 budget, a job not anticipated last March. Questions from Mr. Abrahams about the wording of four different scenarios were also on the agenda, and the group received copies in four colors of e-mails back and forth with Mr. Abrahams.
Frank Yeomans, task group member from Chilmark, blamed the group itself for becoming too involved in the process. He conceded that the task group had a responsibility to see that Mr. Abrahams had the information he needed, but he quarreled with the group's attention to minute details. Camille Rose of Aquinnah agreed with Mr. Yeomans, saying that although she did not believe that the group had attempted to influence Mr. Abrahams in any way, its deep involvement might create an appearance that compromised his position as an independent outsider.
Richard Mezger, co-chairman from West Tisbury, disagreed. Although he placed most of the blame on the complexity of the tasks, he commented that Mr. Abrahams, who is often slow in returning phone calls and e-mails, is probably not able to give the project a high priority. "Nevertheless," he told The Times this week, "he's done a really good job of giving us the time and energy we need. We're still pleased with his work."
Mr. Yeomans made a motion, seconded by Ms. Rose, that the task group demand a draft of Mr. Abrahams's final report by Dec. 22. After some debate, the motion was tabled, but the group agreed to ask Mr. Abrahams for a draft by Dec. 22 or as soon as he could commit to thereafter. Mr. Mezger told The Times that Mr. Abrahams has not yet responded with a date.
The three towns that make up the UIRSD will not be in a position to make decisions about the school district until their annual town meetings in the spring. If a town decides to withdraw from the district, the process (two votes, six months apart) requires that a final decision to withdraw could not be effected until the 2007-2008 school year.
When a final report is accepted by the task group, it will be presented to the Island at a public meeting. Selectmen and other officials will receive advance copies a week before the public.