West Tisbury FinCom, school committee continue their debate over school costs
At last week's meeting of the West Tisbury selectmen, the finance committee (FinCom) and the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) committee continued the latest round of their long-running battle over the costs of the district. Some concessions were made on both sides, but the basic issue - the cost of the Chilmark School - remains. Superintendent of Schools James Weiss attended the meeting.
The selectmen plan to meet soon with their opposite numbers in Chilmark and Aquinnah.
Alexander DeVito summed up the FinCom's position: "We realize that the town of Chilmark, at least through its leaders, has expressed the fact that they want to keep their school open. We don't have any problem with that. We just feel that it adds additional cost to the town of West Tisbury. Chilmark should pay some additional money for that."
The Chilmark School. Photo by Susan Safford
The cost of the Chilmark School
Superintendent Weiss reported that at a very long meeting on the previous Monday, the UIRSD committee had agreed on three positions. First, they were unanimously opposed to closing any of the Island schools. Second, they are willing to work with and amend the capital costs formula to guarantee a minimum contribution from each town that owns a school building. Third, they are willing work with all three towns to make operating-cost assessments fairer, if there is an equitable way of doing this.
Susan Parker, UIRSD member from Chilmark, listed the per pupil costs of some other schools on the Island and off: Tisbury ($16,000), Edgartown ($15,782), Truro ($19,407), Cambridge ($17,551), Nantucket ($16,694). She pointed out that the UIRSD ($17,451) offers exceptional programs and went on to say, "I don't see how we can sit on the one hand and talk about the need for affordable housing, the need to try to keep families on the Island, wanting to keep people with children here, and go to these youth-at-risk meetings and hear...how important it is having extra adults in children's lives that are stable and make a difference - and then at the same time look at two schools that are doing beautifully and then sit here and bicker over possibly a thousand dollars difference [in per-pupil cost]. It just seems to me to be ludicrous.... There are some other things that are important besides just what is the cheapest, most efficient way to go."
In response to questions about the value of the education up-Island, Ms. Parker pointed out that 11 of the top 20 graduates of the high school came from the UIRSD. "We have far fewer than 50 percent of the students in the high school," she said. Of the John and Abigail Adams scholarships based on MCAS scores, she added, 42 percent were from up-Island.
She reminded the meeting that the 8th grade at the West Tisbury School has scored the top in the state two years in a row on the science and technology MCAS. "To me as a taxpayer...this is something I want to celebrate. It's fine to sit here and try in a nice way, if there are some inequities, to try to figure them out. But to take away a school that is flourishing or to say it is not needed - to hire somebody who doesn't even bother to come see the school to say it's not needed - is just insulting."
Diane Wall, school committee member from West Tisbury, pointed out, "Chilmark pays most of the cost of the Chilmark School, and we all agree that the capital formula can be changed."
Newly-elected FinCom member Brian Athearn commented, "Everyone agrees that the Chilmark School is not going to close. Why can't we just talk to the Chilmark selectmen and the people of Chilmark and say, 'Why can't we just make this a little more equitable, find some meeting ground in the middle?'"
Chairman of selectmen John Early commented that the selectmen had already agreed to discuss the issue with the Chilmark and Aquinnah selectmen.
The high cost of education
Mr. DeVito said that the FinCom thinks that the cost of the Chilmark School is part of a larger issue - the overall costs of the UIRSD. "The question is how do we lower the seven-plus million dollars so that it is more compatible with the cost of education on the Island," he said. "That's the bottom line."
Selectman Glenn Hearn agreed. He wondered, "I really don't understand why this community spends so much money on a per-pupil basis. We continue to increase our budget, and we have decreasing numbers of kids." Mr. Hearn suggested increasing class size, combining lower grades (perhaps by sending more students to the Chilmark School), and reducing administration as possible avenues to be explored.
Mr. Weiss replied that some of the measures are already in place for next year. The West Tisbury School will have a combined first and second grade next year. In the past two years, staff has been reduced by five full-time equivalents, through attrition and by reducing some sports staff and special teachers. He said that in some grades, Up-Island's class sizes were higher than at other Island schools, but lower in others.
Mr. Weiss also noted that changes in transportation arrangements have saved Island schools $200,000 to $400,000 this year and will save $150,000 to $200,000 next year. He went on to suggest other measures. "We can collaborate Island-wide and all save money, by sharing staff, sharing expenses, and sharing equipment."
Ms. Parker explained that some of the UIRSD extra cost comes from the effort to offer support services for students with special needs, in order to keep those children on the Island when an off-Island school might have sent them to special schools. While sending such students off-Island would have been even more expensive, the extra staff raises the per-pupil cost for the district.
The percentage of students with special needs in the UIRSD is 25 percent, the same as at the high school, Mr. Weiss said. Down-Island towns were somewhat lower, but still higher than the state-wide percentage, 14 percent.
Transportation reimbursement and apportionment formulas
New FinCom member Richard Knabel asked Mr. Weiss if he thought the state should be doing more to help regional school districts. Mr. Weiss replied that it should. First, the state should keep its promises and return to the original 100 percent financing of regional district transportation costs (it's now at about 70 percent). Second, all state apportionment formulas should be adjusted to encourage regionalization. The wealth-based apportionment system recommended by the state has the potential to discourage regionalization by pitting one town against another.
According to consultant Mark Abraham's report, in 2006, the wealth-based apportionment formula recommended by the state would have transferred $269,000 of the district apportionments from Aquinnah and Chilmark to West Tisbury. Costs are currently apportioned according to the number of pupils who attend the UIRSD. The Aquinnah selectmen have written urging the change to the wealth-based formula.
Mr. Knabel pointed out that Aquinnah's position risks breaking up the UIRSD.
UIRSD chairman Roxanne Ackerman, member from Aquinnah, commented that she is not in agreement with the Aquinnah selectmen's letter. "We all have to be fair to each other and work it out," she said. "We have a good region, we have a good educational program here. We won't gain anything by breaking up. We'll lose - big."
The selectmen will meet
At the end of the meeting, Mr. DeVito reiterated his original position: "In the past two years, I have seen a much greater emphasis on controlling and limiting costs. I think we are on the right track. The school committee's willingness to look at capital costs is a good thing. However, I still feel that having two schools increases the cost to taxpayers, and Chilmark should pay more for the privilege of having two schools."
Selectman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter, who is also a member of both the FinCom and the UIRSD committee, had kept quiet for most of the meeting. At the end he praised the UIRSD but warned that the West Tisbury voters are struggling with school costs and might not approve the school budget at the next annual town meeting. Superintendent Weiss cautioned the meeting: "The school committee is committed to keeping the schools open and finding a way to make that sensible, as much as possible. [But] there will always be, in a small school, a larger per-pupil cost. No question."
Mr. Early closed the meeting by saying that the next step is for the selectmen of the three towns to get together, and he instructed executive secretary Jennifer Rand to arrange a joint meeting as soon as practical.