Good numbers all, but you pick
The reports are in, and the controversy lingers. Two different consultants this week weighed in on different aspects of the financing of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD), part of an effort to resolve the differences between the UIRSD and the West Tisbury FinCom. Voters will hear reports at the West Tisbury annual town meeting next week.
The bottom line of the report written by Mark Abrahams, the consultant hired pursuant to a town meeting resolution aimed at illuminating the costs allocated to the three towns in the UIRSD, is that the UIRSD was right about the money, and the West Tisbury FinCom was wrong. However, Mr. Abrahams has provided 150 electronic pages of spreadsheets, so that anyone with knowledge of Excel can adjust variables to see if different assumptions produce other results.
Mr. Abrahams did indeed conclude that there are inequities in the formula that apportions the costs of the UIRSD among its three member towns. Ironically, he concludes that the inequities favor West Tisbury. Mr. Abrahams recommended adopting four changes. Though all the inequities corrected by them are small (a net loss to West Tisbury of about $27,000), Mr. Abrahams said that the changes are the fair way to proceed, and might in future years be more financially important
A fifth consideration, which Mr. Abrahams neither recommended nor discouraged, would be to adopt a wealth-based allocation of costs within the district, a method recommended (but not yet required) by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) but used by only half the districts in Massachusetts. If it had been used in this 2006 fiscal year, wealth-based apportionment would have transferred $269,000 of the district apportionments from Aquinnah and Chilmark to West Tisbury. If the present political trends continue, Mr. Abraham said, the DOE may eventually force all districts to adopt wealth-based allocation of costs.
The task group had asked Mr. Abrahams to consider four "scenarios." Calculated using 2006 costs and 2005 enrollments, his conclusion is that all scenarios would cost West Tisbury taxpayers more money. The first scenario is to keep the district as it is, changing only the method of calculating enrollment (Chilmark would pay significantly less; Aquinnah and West Tisbury, significantly more). Dissolving the district (scenario two) would have cost West Tisbury between $452,000 and $493,000 in 2006. Withdrawing from the district, the 2004 recommendation of the FinCom, was scenario three. It would have cost West Tisbury between $240,000 and $320,000, very nearly what the superintendent's office reported back in 2004. Scenario four (Chilmark's withdrawal from the district, leaving West Tisbury and Aquinnah) would cost West Tisbury between $20,000 and $60,000.
According to Mr. Abrahams's calculations, most of this difference is because of the loss of transportation funds the state pays to school districts but not to individual towns.
Mr. Halley's bottom line
Meanwhile, the West Tisbury FinCom hired its own consultant to investigate a scenario left out of the task group's RFP at the request of the Chilmark selectmen.
The West Tisbury FinCom had wanted the three-town's consultant to determine the cost of operating the UIRSD in only one building, the West Tisbury School. Because the Chilmark selectmen insisted that Chilmark would always keep its town school, they refused to pay for a study investigating something they would never do.
However, the West Tisbury FinCom was not interested in closing the Chilmark School, but only in determining how much more it was costing the district to keep it open - perhaps with an eye to asking Chilmark to pay some or all of the difference.
With an appropriation from the November 2005 special town meeting, the FinCom hired Harkin, Kelly, and Associates to analyze the one-site scenario. The lead consultant on the FinCom's project was James Halley, who is the superintendent of the North Kingstown, R.I., school district. Charlene Harkins Heintz also worked on the study, and both took part in a report to the FinCom on Tuesday this week. Data collection was accomplished more expeditiously by Mr. Halley, who quickly produced enrollment projections based on his 18 years' experience as a superintendent. Mr. Halley projects the 2010 enrollment for the UIRSD at 291; Mr. Abrahams, at 320 students.
Mr. Halley estimates that operating the UIRSD at one site (the West Tisbury School) would save $1.2 million dollars per year. However, after some questioning by Al DeVito of the FinCom, he conceded that the savings might be as low as $850,000. Peter Costas of the FinCom pointed out that even if the district agreed to assume the salaries for all teachers, teachers' assistants, and special education teachers at the Chilmark School (not one of Mr. Halley's assumptions), the UIRSD would still save more than $500,000.
In response to a question, Mr. Halley noted that his work presumed that the UIRSD would remain intact, and so state transportation subsidies would not be lost, as they would be in three of the scenarios in Mr. Abrahams's report.
When Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter - a member of the FinCom, the school committee, and the board of selectmen - pointed out to Mr. Halley that West Tisbury is not interested in closing the Chilmark School, Mr. Halley commented, "If your community can afford this, then I think [the Chilmark School] is a nice luxury to have, but you're tying up a lot of money that could be used in other ways." Sticking to his original figures, he went on to say, "Fifteen cents out of every tax dollar, you're spending for a luxury . . . when I feel there really isn't an educational need."
How it all began
At the annual West Tisbury town meeting in 2004, West Tisbury voters authorized moderator Pat Gregory to appoint a three-town task group to hire a consultant to analyze the finances of the UIRSD. The reason for the resolution was a disagreement between the West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom) and the school committee.
The FinCom argued that the town was unfairly shouldering too much of the cost of the UIRSD and urged voters to begin the process of withdrawing from the district, perhaps with the ultimate intention of renegotiating the terms of the regional agreement. The FinCom calculated that by withdrawing, West Tisbury would save $194,508 in the first year and perhaps more in subsequent years. However, the school committee presented its own figures, provided by the office of the superintendent, which showed that withdrawing from the district would actually cost the town over $300,000 more. The voters had no way to know whose numbers to believe.
John Early, chairman of the selectmen at the time, offered the resolution to hire an independent expert to find, in the words of Frank Ferro, "numbers we can trust."
Although the 2004 resolution called for a report by the fall of that year, the report was not delivered until Monday this week, almost exactly two years after the town meeting action. Mark Abrahams, the consultant hired for the task, cited data-collection as the main reason for the delay. Just finding and projecting student enrollment figures, by Mr. Abrahams's account, took "four to five months." Collecting the data proved so complicated that providing it to Mr. Abrahams involved many hours of work by the members of the task group themselves, as well as by Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs. The involvement of the task group and the superintendent's office, though necessary for Mr. Abrahams to complete his tasks, has caused some on the FinCom to question the impartiality of the report.
Times contributing editor Dan Cabot is a member of the board of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School and the West Tisbury personnel board.