Tisbury seeks school funding formula change
A Tisbury delegation traveled to Boston last Thursday to ask state Sen. Robert O'Leary for help in delaying or reducing what could be a crushing financial burden for their town, imposed by the state's new formula for allocating regional school district costs.
Although he promised to research and consider the possibility of filing legislation to help Tisbury, Senator O'Leary cautioned the group that nothing could be done in time to make a difference in this year's budget before the April annual town meeting.
The senator and his legislative aide, Nate Mayo, met with the Tisbury delegation in his State House offices. State Representative Eric Turkington sent his legislative aide, Kate Guthrie, to the meeting. The Island group included Tisbury selectmen Tristan Israel and Denys Wortman, Tisbury School school advisory group members Wiet Bacheller and James Norton, school committee member John Bacheller, and Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs. James Powell of West Tisbury, a candidate for state representative in the last election, also attended.
State Sen. Robert O'Leary, left, with Tisbury selectmen Tristan Israel and Denys Wortman during a meeting at the State House last week. Photo by Janet Hefler
In a brief summary, Mr. Israel explained that under the state's mandated aggregate wealth formula to take effect this year, Tisbury's share of the regional high school district's budget would increase by about $314,000 over the amount the town would have paid under the Island's current regional agreement. Although Chilmark's and West Tisbury's shares also will increase, Tisbury's increase is disproportionately much higher. Conversely, Aquinnah, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown would see their apportionments reduced.
"This is an enormous amount of money for us to come up with," Mr. Israel said. "In our community, education is our number one priority. We've far exceeded what the state would have expected us to spend on education."
Last October, associate commissioner of education Jeff Wulfson participated in a public forum at the regional high school to explain the formula's complexities to Island town officials, educators, and taxpayers.
Since the education reform act of 1993 was passed, Mr. Wulfson said, the goal of the Chapter 70 state aid formula has been to ensure all school districts attain foundation budget spending levels, a minimal amount of local revenue that cities or towns are required to contribute to schools.
In the past, state aid formulas were determined by dividing either the equalized property valuation (EPV) or some form of income by a denominator such as enrollment or population. The state's latest formula calculates a town's aggregate wealth, based on its total EPV and its total income.
The formula sets a statewide target of 59 percent local funding and 41 percent state funding of the foundation budget. Target percentages will vary depending on a community's wealth.
Taking into account areas like the Cape and Vineyard, where high property values are disproportionate to taxpayers' income levels, Mr. Wulfson said the legislature recently amended the formula to set a cap of 82.5 percent on the amount of local contributions towns must make to a school district's foundation budget. The result is that every district is guaranteed to receive state aid for at least 17.5 percent of the foundation budget.
A transition period to phase in the formula, at a rate of 20 percent each year for five years, is designed to relieve some of the state's burden in having to provide extra funding to towns that are supposed to be increasing their foundation budgets.
According to state Department of Education (DOE) officials, by 2011, the end of the transition period, the assessment figures supposedly will drop to levels closer to what towns now pay. Mr. Israel urged Mr. O'Leary, along with Mr. Turkington, to file legislation to allow towns like Tisbury to bypass the transition phase.
"We would like to see that legislation filed for those districts where the communities exceed or meet what they're supposed to be spending, so they are allowed to go right to the end of that transition period," Mr. Israel said. Otherwise, the cost to Tisbury over the transition period would amount to about $460,000.
Mr. Wortman agreed. "If you take a district and every town is over that cap, just forget about the transition period. That would work," he told the senator.
Another thorny aspect of the state's formula is that the legislation requires school districts to use it unless every town in the district concurs on a regional agreement, which in effect pits town against town.
On Martha's Vineyard, where towns already view regionalization with suspicion, Mr. Israel pointed out, the state formula only encourages separatism.
"The dollars make it very tempting," he said. "It just drives everybody apart, and what we're asking to happen would at least in some ways be more equitable and maybe get us around what could be very damaging to the regional school district."
Senator O'Leary said the towns of Dennis and Yarmouth are facing a similar battle, as one benefits more under the existing regional agreement and the other under the state formula.
The DOE did extend a public comment period about the formula from mid-October into December, and postponed a vote on regulations for its implementation until January 23. One of the proposed changes recommends that district school committees should decide which assessment method would be put to a vote at town meeting.
Until DOE votes on the regulations and without knowing what methodology Island towns will approve for their assessments, the regional high school committee approved the Fiscal Year 2008 budget based on the existing regional agreement, with the caveat that town apportionments may be subject to change at a later date.
Complicating the matter further, Tisbury town officials and school administrators discovered flaws in the data provided by the Massachusetts department of revenue (DOR) to calculate the town's aggregate wealth, based on total equalized property valuation (EPV) and total annual income.
As Mr. Wortman explained, Tisbury's total income figure may be skewed because a number of non-Tisbury residents may be counted as residents based on their mailing addresses. Mr. Bacheller said that rural route deliveries for Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury are delivered through the Vineyard Haven post office with a Vineyard Haven zip code.
In addition, many Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury residents choose to pay for a post office box in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Bacheller said Tisbury town treasurer Tim McLean estimated the number of non-resident box holders and rural delivery patrons at around 2,000.
The inflated number of residents results in Tisbury appearing to be the wealthiest community on the Island, with a disproportionate shift of regional school district costs to Tisbury. Yet, according to figures Ms. Bacheller provided to Senator O'Leary, out of the six Island towns, Tisbury ranks fifth in terms of land value, and third in the number of students attending the regional high school.
"The high school operates on a per pupil basis," Mr. Bacheller said. "We've done that ever since I've been on the Island. If it costs $7,000 to educate a student from Vineyard Haven and $7,000 for a student from Oak Bluffs, then everybody's equal."
Although Tisbury qualifies for the foundation budget cap, Mr. Bacheller said his concern is that no one from the department of education has been able to provide the data used to calculate the foundation budget.
Listening intently to each person who spoke, Senator O'Leary gave the group his full attention for 45 minutes, interrupting only occasionally to clarify what he was hearing or ask a thoughtful question. He promised to discuss the issues with Representative Turkington, and in turn talk with the DOE about possibly filing legislation and with the DOR about correcting the residency data.
"Frankly, I need to talk to the other towns, though, in fairness to them," the senator said. Noting the absence of representatives from other Island towns, the senator asked about the prevailing opinion among Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, and Edgartown leadership.
"If I were a betting man, I would bet Oak Bluffs would go for it," Mr. Israel said. Aquinnah selectmen had planned to put the assessment question to voters at a special town meeting in October, which failed to achieve a quorum. Another meeting is scheduled for February. Although the Edgartown selectmen voted in support of maintaining the Island's regional agreement, Mr. Israel pointed out that town voters may not agree.
"One way of getting at this is to sort of recalculate the formula more accurately," Senator O'Leary concluded. To allow time for ironing out the problems, Mr. Wortman suggested declaring "a time-out for one year" before implementing the formula, which the senator indicated he did not think was an option.
Asked by the senator for a timetable for addressing the formula issues, Mr. Israel told him that Tisbury needed something done "yesterday," or if possible, by the start of the town meeting cycle in April.
"You know the legislative cycle is not in sync with that - there's no way," the senator said with an apologetic smile, thanking everyone and heading out the door to his next appointment.