Up-Island selectmen differ on formula for school costs
In a discussion Monday night regarding formulas for equitably dividing school costs between up-Island towns, Aquinnah Selectman Chairman Michael Hebert broke sharply with the selectmen from Chilmark and West Tisbury, voicing support for the state department of education's (DOE) wealth-based apportionment formula.
Using the state formula, Aquinnah could expect to save an estimated $93,000 this year. Future amounts could vary from year to year, however, depending on when the town's real estate revaluations are done.
The meeting between up-Island selectmen, members of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD), and school administrators was a continuation of discussions held a few weeks ago regarding the assessment formula currently used by Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury.
As compared to the UIRSD formula, under the State Department of Education (DOE) formula, provided by Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, Aquinnah's assessment would drop, Chilmark's assessment would increase by $24,575 and West Tisbury's by $69,149.
At a meeting of the selectmen and school committee members a few weeks ago, they agreed they were willing to stick together as a school district and work towards an acceptable and fair way to share its costs.
On Monday night, Chilmark Selectman Warren Doty pointed out that the original formula agreed upon by the UIRSD was developed to equitably distribute the school system's costs given the unique circumstances of each town. However, Mr. Hebert announced that his town would prefer that the school district use the DOE wealth-based apportionment formula to determine each town's assessments for school costs. He also said the Aquinnah selectmen plan to hold a public hearing soon, "... to get the town's mindset about the assessment formula."
The current UIRSD formula is based on enrollment, dividing the total number of students enrolled by town by the total district enrollment. As explained by James Weiss, superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, the DOE formula blends enrollment and wealth, in terms of real estate and median income by town. Capital costs and transportation, however, continue to be calculated under the terms of a school district's regional agreement.
The up-Island selectmen and UIRSD school committee began weighing the pros and cons of the formulas at a meeting a few weeks ago. At that time, Aquinnah Selectman Camille Rose, who did not attend Monday's meeting, said the wealth-based formula would certainly be more appealing to her town, considering that although the average house sale in Aquinnah is about $1.2 million, it has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the State.
"We have a large population of school children whose expenses aren't being supported by taxes, and we are looking at ways to mitigate those costs," she said. "We would be remiss not to offer this to the voters in our town."
Ms. Tierney said that about half of the regional districts in the State use the wealth-based formula, including Dennis-Yarmouth and Silver Lake. The towns in a region make their formula decision at town meeting. Technically, since the up-Island towns make up a regional district, each town should be voting on which formula they would prefer, Ms. Tierney said.
Complicating the matter further, said Richard Knabel, a member of West Tisbury's Finance Committee, are eight pages of amendments under a proposal by the State DOE that will make the wealth-based apportionment formula the default and regional agreements the alternate. Consequently, the UIRSD's formula would require unanimous approval by the member towns in order to replace the state's default formula. As Mr. Weiss pointed out, that would mean preparing two budgets every year.
The DOE formula has been criticized for its potential to discourage regionalization by pitting towns against each other. For example, a wealthy town that is expected to pay a high percentage in a school district containing less wealthy towns might elect to withdraw from the district instead.
The potential for the formula to cause friction between towns was evident Monday night. Only a few moments before Selectman Hebert announced Aquinnah's preference for the State formula, Chilmark Warren Doty had commented, "We'd rather stick with the formula we've used for the past several years, and not go with the state's recommended formula, and see what the state does in terms of new regulations."
West Tisbury selectmen John Early and J. "Skipper" Manter said they had not voted on a formula as a board and thought they should discuss it first.
Aquinnah's decision to buck the trend means putting two formula choices on the three up-Island towns' warrants and achieving a unanimous vote in all three towns to keep the UIRSD formula. "This is really antithetical to regional districts," said Chilmark Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker.
Mr. Manter agreed. "There is an issue already. Chilmark wants one formula and Aquinnah wants another."
"What concerns me about this is having to discuss the formula on an annual basis," said UIRSD school committee member Katherine Logue. "This is a matter of huge concern. We have a school district to run here."
Mr. Weiss added that "Getting unanimous approval every single year will be nearly impossible." He agreed to contact a DOE attorney for written confirmation of the requirement for a unanimous vote by the three towns to effect a formula change. Mr. Knabel said he thought it would be up to a town's selectmen to put it on the ballot.
Mr. Knabel said there is a public comment period until October 24 regarding the adoption of the DOE amendments on the wealth-based formula. Mr. Weiss said a group of regional schools is requesting that the DOE allow a grace period for putting the state formula into place.
Despite Mr. Hebert's declaration of Aquinnah's preference, UIRSD chairman Roxanne Ackerman argued in favor of keeping the school district's formula. "We've worked so hard to come up with it," she said. Instead of choosing to go with the DOE formula, she suggested that the school committee draft a warrant article to change the capital costs formula to 80-10-10, so that Chilmark pays more of its share for its own school.
Dan Cabot, a West Tisbury resident who is running for a seat on the UIRSD school committee, pointed out that the towns could modify the capital costs formula as Ms. Ackerman suggested, no matter what happens with the assessment formula.
"We have to bring something to the towns," Ms. Ackerman said.
"I'd prefer to wait, to hear more from the public," Mr. Hebert told her. "If you don't inform the public beforehand, you won't get anywhere at town meeting."
Mr. Weiss recommended that the group meet again after Aquinnah's public hearing. In the meantime, Ms. Tierney suggested contacting Mark Abraham, a consultant who studied the UIRSD's finances, to see how much it would cost to hire him to prepare a projection of the budget figures out a few years, using the state formula.
After concluding their discussion with the selectmen, the UIRSD school committee members held their regular meeting, continuing to discuss the merits of adjusting the capital costs formula to 80-10-10.
Mr. Weiss said that according to the State Cherry Sheets received, the school district can expect Chapter 70 funds totaling about $806,000.
In the school district's year-end report, Ms. Tierney said about 4 percent of the superintendent's office budget remains, with a savings of $85,000 to be reapportioned back to the local district.
The next UIRSD school committee meeting is scheduled for Sept. 18 at 6 pm at Chilmark School.