Tisbury balks at bill
Town, schools at odds over teacher training fund; a long-lived feud
Differences over the financing of an Island-wide teachers' professional enhancement fund have led to a stand-off between Tisbury town accountant Suzanne Kennedy and superintendent of schools James Weiss, over Ms. Kennedy's refusal to pay the town's full share.
Island towns pay into the professional enhancement fund (PEF) in proportion to their student enrollments in the five school districts, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, Up-Island, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury. The fund, capped at $88,000 annually, is used to partially reimburse teachers for sabbaticals, tuition, and other professional enhancement.
At the Tisbury selectmen's meeting last week, Ms. Kennedy said that at the end of June 2007, she reduced the payment for Tisbury's share of the fund for fiscal year 2007 (FY07) from approximately $15,000 to about $1,500.
As she explained, "At the end of fiscal year 2007, I made a calculation of the amount of money that we were supposed to put into the fund and the amount of money that we had actually expended for our teachers, and I made the adjustment that I feel is the refund that we're due."
Among the issues over which Mr. Weiss and Ms. Kennedy differ is whether each towns' contribution to the fund should be used by the superintendent to reimburse only that town's teachers or a share of the reimbursements made to teachers that towns share. If Tisbury's teachers claim no reimbursements for a given budget year, the town should be reimbursed for its payment, Ms. Kennedy believes. Mr. Weiss says once the towns have made their contributions, he will use the money to reimburse teachers as needed, no matter which town they work in.
Ms. Kennedy said she believes the town is due a refund from the fund for 2005 and 2006, for any money that Tisbury paid into the fund that was not used for reimbursements for its teachers or the town's portion of expenses for teachers, shared Island-wide through the superintendent's office.
But Mr. Weiss told Ms. Kennedy, in a letter dated Oct. 9, that he could not process reimbursement requests from six Tisbury teachers totaling more than $6,000 from the fund, if the town has decided not to pay its entire share. "It is my hope that Tisbury will fully pay its share of the superintendent's office expenses," he wrote.
Tisbury's share of the FY08 PEF recently was billed to the town at $15,861.12. The PEF is a line item under the superintendent's office portion of the school budget.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said at the Oct. 16 selectmen's meeting that he called Mr. Weiss after reading a copy of his letter that afternoon. Mr. Israel also asked Ms. Kennedy to attend the evening meeting to discuss it. Although the selectmen and Ms. Kennedy had different interpretations of how the fund works, they agreed during their discussion that they remembered Tisbury voting at town meeting to pay into the professional enhancement fund, with the understanding that at the end of the year, the town's unused portion of the fund would be returned.
The fund, established by special legislation in 1988, authorized the Martha's Vineyard Superintendency Union School Committee to set up a separate account from which it could reimburse teachers. The legislation included a provision that required all six Island towns to accept it at their annual meetings.
Aquinnah, Chilmark, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury passed an article accepting the fund at annual town meetings in 2003. Edgartown officials, however, did not include an article to approve the fund, because they said they thought it was not necessary.
The fund's approval in Tisbury, however, hit several rough spots. Because Edgartown did not formally approve the fund, Ms. Kennedy spoke in opposition to it on Tisbury's town meeting floor in 2003, on the grounds that not all of the towns had approved it. She
also protested that money left in the account at the end of the current fiscal year was not returned to the towns and that the fund's accounting was not being reported. Tisbury voters rejected the article.
It took two more tries until Tisbury passed it. Although voters approved the fund in an article on the special town meeting warrant in April 2004, town counsel David Doneski concluded the vote was not legal because it did not take place at an annual town meeting.
In a phone call this week, Ms. Kennedy recalled that in March 2005, former superintendent Kriner Cash submitted a late-filed article to the selectmen seeking approval of the fund at the April annual town meeting, and asking the selectmen to support it.
When Mr. Cash met with the selectmen, Ms. Kennedy said, "They discussed how the fund would be implemented, how we would receive funds, how the $88,000 would be managed - all of that was gone into in detail, in exchange for this assurance that we'd be refunded the money at the end of the fiscal year."
Tisbury voters approved the fund at the April 2005 annual town meeting, as did Edgartown voters at their town meeting the same month.
Although the actual wording of the article approved on town meeting floors Island-wide called only for voters to approve the establishment of the fund without going into the specifics, Ms. Kennedy said she believes she is now enforcing what was agreed upon at Tisbury's 2005 annual town meeting.
Ms. Kennedy said that from minutes of meetings and town meetings dating back several years, she believes that Tisbury agreed to contribute to the fund, with the understanding that the town's share would go towards reimbursements for professional enhancement for Tisbury teachers, and the
town's portion of the superintendent's office's teachers, such as special education specialists, shared by Island schools. This is a major point of contention between her and Mr. Weiss, who was hired as superintendent in July 2005.
"I'm positive that this refund was promised, and that I was there from the start of this whole issue," Ms. Kennedy said. "I know I was present at all of the meetings, and I don't think there was any question in my mind or in anybody else's at the town meeting, what was promised. Dr. Weiss has only been here for several years, and now he's taken a firm stance on saying this is pooled money. This is how he wants to administer it, and he wasn't here then."
Ms. Kennedy said Mr. Weiss was not invited to last week's meeting because Mr. Israel decided to put the topic of the fund on the agenda at the last minute. "It wasn't anything done to eliminate him from the conversation - it was something that I wasn't anticipating having to discuss that night, either," she said.
In a phone call on Oct. 17, the day after the meeting, Mr. Weiss said it would have been nice if the selectmen had invited him, because he would have welcomed the opportunity for discussion.
"I have been trying to work with Tisbury since last year, to sit down and resolve this. And that's really what should happen," Mr. Weiss said. "And I'm not saying they're wrong and I'm right, or I'm wrong and they're right - I'm just saying the solution to this is to sit and talk, and I think that's the best way we can handle this. It isn't auditors or lawyers, it's just the people who are involved, sitting and solving the problem."
Asked to explain how the fund works, Mr. Weiss said, "It doesn't just go for Tisbury teachers - it goes for any teacher on the Island. One year, the $88,000 could go to high school teachers, if they're the only ones who put in for reimbursements."
"Now, that's not going to happen, but the fund is there, regardless of town affiliation," he said. "The towns contribute to the fund, and we dole it out, based upon requests, regardless of where people come from."
Mr. Pachico suggested at the selectmen's meeting that Tisbury should take care of its own teachers and pull out of the Island-wide fund. However, as Mr. Weiss explained, "This is part of a union agreement between the school districts on the Island and the Martha's Vineyard Education Association. It's part of the teachers' contract."
As for Tisbury choosing to pull out of the fund, Mr. Weiss said, "Well, they can, but I don't have a vehicle to do that. The selectmen would have to negotiate with the teachers, and I don't think they can do that without me."
Regarding the question of whether Tisbury is due a refund from the fund, Mr. Weiss said that he told the All-Island School Committee at the end of fiscal year 2006, his first year as superintendent, that if there was any money left in the fund, he was going to ask to return it to the towns. "There was no money left, so I didn't return it to the towns, because I didn't have any," he said. "I haven't done fiscal year 2007 yet, because we're still trying to pay bills from that fiscal year."
Mr. Weiss said he has written Ms. Kennedy five letters since June suggesting they meet and talk. "I can't solve problems that happened years ago before I got here, but moving forward, I want to work with the town of Tisbury to resolve this," he said. "But in the meantime, I don't have the $88,000, so it's hard for me to reimburse Tisbury teachers."
Since Tisbury is the only Island town that has not contributed its share to the fund, Mr. Weiss said, "I am presently holding a couple of requests for reimbursements for Tisbury teachers until we resolve where we are, because I can't reimburse people if there is no money in the fund."
Mr. Pachico told Ms. Kennedy at the conclusion of last week's discussion that the selectmen would set up a meeting with Mr. Weiss. "It's a difference of opinion - give him a chance to do it," Mr. Pachico said. As of Tuesday this week, Ms. Kennedy said no meeting had been scheduled.