West Tisbury FinCom on school financing
After the West Tisbury selectmen heard a report from the town finance committee (FinCom) on the finances of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) last week, members of the audience exclaimed in exasperation, "We're exactly back to where we were two years ago."
That isn't exactly the case. Two consultants came to different conclusions, but the reports may both be useful tools. Although there is still no solution to the long-running dispute between the West Tisbury FinCom and the UIRSD committee, negotiators (and eventually voters) in the three towns (Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury) now have a great deal more information than was available two years ago.
For several years the West Tisbury FinCom has been saying that West Tisbury is paying an unfair share of UIRSD expenses (largely because of the Chilmark School), and in 2004 it told the voters that the town would save significant funds by withdrawing from the district. But the UIRSD committee countered that withdrawing from the district would actually cost the town a lot more. At the 2004 annual town meeting, the voters asked for an independent consultant to provide numbers they could trust, and eventually the West Tisbury FinCom also hired a second consultant for a task not included in the first consultant's charge.
The two consultants have now made separate reports, and while at first glance their conclusions seems to contradict one another, they were reporting on different aspects of the dispute, using different kinds of information, and it is quite possible that both are correct and that together they provide sufficient facts for settling the dispute at last.
Mark Abraham's report
Mark Abraham, the consultant hired by a financial task group composed of representatives from all three towns, concluded that the West Tisbury FinCom was wrong. According to Mr. Abraham's calculations, withdrawing from the UIRSD in 2006 would have cost West Tisbury between $240,000 and $320,000, chiefly because of the loss of transportation funds the state pays to school districts but not to individual towns. Dissolving the district entirely would cost all three towns money, but West Tisbury most of all - between $452,000 and $493,000 in 2006.
Mr. Abraham concluded that the FinCom was also incorrect in saying that the formula that apportions the costs of the UIRSD among its three member towns is unfair to West Tisbury. He judged the formula in general to be fair, and he found that the small inequities in it favor West Tisbury and recommended correcting them as the fair way to proceed.
James Halley's report
Mr. Abraham, however, did not examine the costs of operating the Up-Island Regional School District (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 a step they would never take. Persisting, the West Tisbury FinCom, with approval from a special town meeting, spent $5,000 to hire Harkins, Kelley and Associates to make a separate study of the efficiencies which might be gained - not because they wanted to close the Chilmark School, but because they wanted Chilmarkers to pay for the extra expense of keeping it open.
It was the final report from the FinCom's consultant, James Halley, on which Alexander DeVito, a member of the West Tisbury FinCom, reported to the selectmen last week.
"There is sufficient space at the West Tisbury School today - and tomorrow - to accommodate all the children that are in the UIRSD," Mr. DeVito quoted Mr. Halley. "And most importantly, they can be accommodated without damaging in any way the high quality education the students get."
Mr. Halley concluded that running the district solely in the West Tisbury school this year would have saved the taxpayers in the three up-Island towns about $900,000. Mr. DeVito calculates that West Tisbury's share of the savings would be more than $600,000.
The reason why Mr. Abraham's numbers are so different from Mr. Halley's, is that Mr. Halley assumed that the UIRSD would remain intact - probably unlikely if the Chilmark School closed, but actually closing the school is not the FinCom's goal.
Mr. DeVito stressed that the West Tisbury FinCom is not urging that the Chilmark site should close. "All we are saying," he said, "is that we want a fairer shake. . . . We feel that the formula should be changed so that those who want the [Chilmark] school pay more for it."
Already voices are heard saying that the extra cost of the Chilmark School is probably not really as much as $900,000. Susan Parker, a Chilmark member of the UIRSD committee, pointed out that some classes in the West Tisbury School will be consolidated next year, saving about $100,000, not included in Mr. Halley's calculations. Moreover, two Chilmark special education students would have brought a one-on-one expense with them to the West Tisbury School, reducing Mr. Halley's calculated savings. Kathy Logue, chairman of the UIRSD, explained to The Times that the district would continue to be liable for debt service on the Chilmark School building as long as Chilmark didn't use it for some other purpose.
The consultants' reports are useful in different ways
The squabbling goes on, so what has changed in the last two years? First of all, Mr. DeVito told The Times, the possibility of West Tisbury's withdrawing from the UIRSD, whether as a real choice or as a threat to force Chilmark to revise the assessment formula, is off the table, thanks to Mr. Abraham's report.
As West Tisbury has no real leverage, its only course now is to appeal to Chilmark on the grounds of fairness, as calculated in Mr. Halley's report.
Mr. Halley, at a preliminary meeting, told the FinCom, "Fifteen cents out of every tax dollar, you're spending for a luxury... when I feel there really isn't an educational need."
Therefore the FinCom asserts that Mr. Halley's expert report substantiates their claim that the Chilmark school is not an educational need for the IURSD, and it gives a ballpark number to what most taxpayers in all the up-Island towns already knew: it costs extra to run the UIRSD in two buildings. Whether Chilmark will be willing to pay any part of that extra expense remains to be seen, but there is a clear place to start talking.
What happens now?
Mr. DeVito told the West Tisbury selectmen last week that he was putting the ball in their court. He noted that the FinCom can only make recommendations. "We think that the selectmen, as town leaders, are the people to go ahead and pursue the issue to make the assessments fairer to West Tisbury," he said.
However, the agreement that created the UIRSD lists only two ways that the agreement can be changed, and neither mentions the selectmen. An amendment to the agreement can be placed on the town meeting warrants of the three towns by a three-fifths vote of the IURSD committee, or it can be placed there by petitions signed by 10 percent of the registered voters in each town.
Ms. Logue told The Times that since Mr. Halley's preliminary report, the UIRSD committee has already been exploring ways to adjust the formula, which now bases the assessments solely on the number of students from each town educated in the UIRSD. Ms. Parker told the West Tisbury selectmen last week that there is room for some negotiation.
One possible adjustment might be to follow Mr. Abraham's advice and include adjustments for Charter School and School Choice students from each town (a change that would be very slightly to West Tisbury's disadvantage). A second possibility is to require that each town pay a minimum of 75 percent of its own school building's capital costs, regardless of how few students from that town happen to be enrolled in any particular year. (Chilmark in one recent year paid only 60 percent of the capital costs of its school building, a source of some dismay in West Tisbury.)
Ms. Logue said that her committee has not yet discussed any extra payments by Chilmark to offset efficiencies lost to the district by continuing to operate in two school buildings.
Despite the terms of the UIRSD agreement, selectman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter, also a member of both the FinCom and the UIRSD committee, told The Times that he sees no reason why the selectmen could not also open negotiations with their Chilmark and Aquinnah counterparts. There could be a separate intermunicipal agreement, he said, outside of the UIRSD agreement itself.
Times contributing editor Dan Cabot is a member of the West Tisbury personnel board and a trustee of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.