More than half a century ago, when the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School was still a dream, not yet the source of community pride it is today, the leaders and people of the six Island towns agreed that building one high school for all their children was the way to go. What people couldn't agree on was how to share the costs among the towns.
The negotiations were long and difficult, but town leaders kept their eyes on the prize. And in 1956 they produced a simple formula assessing high school costs to each town. When that deal won approval across the Island, everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief, hoping devoutly that they'd never have to visit the issue again.
But the next three decades brought unprecedented changes to Martha's Vineyard. The biggest population boom in Island history hit all six towns, with the most remarkable growth occurring in West Tisbury. By the mid-1980s, West Tisbury was contributing nearly 20 percent of the high school's students, but paying just 8 percent of the school's operating costs. Reluctantly, Island leaders agreed it was time to reconsider the assessment formula.
Another round of negotiations ensued. The result was a new formula, which sets Oct. 1 as the official census day for the high school, and bases annual assessments for high school operating costs on the percentage of students enrolled from each town on that day. As was true 30 years earlier, each town had arguments for why its share should be less and another's more. But as before, folks kept their eyes on the prize. And when the new assessment formula was approved in 1989, it was again filed away with prayers that the issue wouldn't be reopened any time soon.
But last year, the Pandora's Box of the high school assessment formula was flung open in a most unexpected way when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts intruded with the full force of law, giving the six towns only two choices: Either divvy up the costs of running the high school according to an arcane "statutory formula" devised in some musty back room of the State House, or vote unanimously - all six towns, every year - to abide by the 1989 agreement.
Faced with no choice but to reconsider a thorny issue, town leaders at first agreed to ask townspeople to stick with the 1989 formula, while talks on the fairness of that agreement could go forward. But the state's formula offered a one-time windfall of $435,000 to the town of Oak Bluffs, and at annual meeting last spring, Oak Bluffs voted for the cash, not the 1989 agreement. That was the end of unanimity, and the "statutory formula" kicked in.
The sad back-story to all this is that the Commonwealth was quietly prepared to let the Island go its way, with its historic assessment formula, as long as nobody made an issue of it. The state's formula, after all, had been created for communities that were under-funding public education - it was all about a transition to the level of spending the state calls a "foundation budget." The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School already spends almost twice that amount.
But someone - specifically, the town of West Tisbury - did make an issue of it. Once the state had been formally notified that Martha's Vineyard was not in compliance with its law, any hope for a policy of "don't ask, don't tell" was dead.
Explained superintendent Jim Weiss in an interview last week: "If no one had raised the question, the state wasn't going to make an issue of this. But when somebody asked the question, the state had to give the answer. And that's why we are where we are today. We could have been dumb and happy for a lot more years."
Where we are today is front and center, watching a spectacle unfold that features the Vineyard body politic at its very worst. Oak Bluffs has seized the short-term profit at the expense of its neighbors. Edgartown is boycotting the meetings of the regional committee charged with reconsidering the high school assessment formula. Tisbury is suing everyone in sight.
The challenge of reaching a regional agreement - merely the most difficult thing for the six towns of Martha's Vineyard to do - is back on the table. As it was 50 years ago, and as it was 20 years ago, this is a moment for Island leaders to rise above their inter-town squabbling, to get over their pet grievances and to be about the business of pursuing the common good.