RHS committee sets charges to state scheme
The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) school committee recently voted to use the state's statutory formula for determining Island town assessments in the fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget.
Several school committee members said they wanted to avoid a repeat performance of last year's fractured and contentious budget process when Vineyard towns were at odds over using the state's statutory formula instead of the Island's own regional agreement.
At the school committee meeting on Feb. 4, superintendent of public schools James Weiss said that Island town leaders had asked that the school district determine the assessments so they would have a number to put in their budgets. Mr. Weiss provided a handout that included a comparison of the FY09 town assessments using the statutory assessment method versus the regional agreement (see chart).
The FY09 assessments reflect changes in enrollment and percentages of enrollment, Mr. Weiss pointed out. While Oak Bluffs and Aquinnah will continue to save money, the increase in Tisbury's assessment is $130,479 less than in FY08.
The difference in using the state's statutory formula in the FY09 budget versus the Island's longstanding regional agreement amounts to a savings of $1,646 for Aquinnah, $337,459 for Oak Bluffs, and an increase of $9,819 for Chilmark, $74,712 for Edgartown, $110,521 for Tisbury, and $144,052 for West Tisbury.
By comparison, for FY08, the first year the state's statutory formula was used to determine Island town assessments, Aquinnah's decreased by about $61,000 and Oak Bluffs' by $435,000, while Chilmark's increased by $75,258, Edgartown's by $86,000, Tisbury's by $241,000, and West Tisbury's by $122,000.
In a meeting held in October 2006, Associate Commissioner of Education Jeff Wulfson explained that a transition period to phase in the formula, 20 percent each year for five years, is designed to ease some of the state's burden in having to provide extra funding to towns that are supposed to be increasing their spending on education. By the end of the phase-in period, he predicted, the state's assessment method and the Island's regional agreement would yield similar results.
As Mr. Weiss reminded the school committee, with three years left to go in the transition period, there are no guarantees. The legislature could take action to slow down the phase-in process.
The budget subcommittee voted to recommend using the statutory formula in a meeting held an hour before the school committee met. In long discussions during both meetings, school committee members agreed, although reluctantly, that choosing the state's statutory formula was a matter of practicality, in light of regulations adopted last year by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE).
The new regulations stipulated that all member towns in a regional school district must approve an existing regional agreement, while only two-thirds of the towns must approve the state's statutory formula. While the Island's regional agreement bases town assessments on a per-pupil cost, the state's statutory formula uses a combination of factors, including a town's real estate values, income levels, and percentage of spending on high school education according to the state-calculated "foundation level."
The high school committee voted last year to approve the FY08 budget based on the Island's regional agreement, to allow the towns the opportunity to vote on the issue at town meetings.
Figuring the FY08 assessments using the state's formula decreased Oak Bluffs' and Aquinnah's assessments by $435,000 and $61,000 respectively, while the other four towns' assessments increased, with Tisbury's the highest at $241,000.
At town meeting in April 2007, Oak Bluffs subsequently rejected the high school's FY08 budget, which the school committee had approved based on the Island's regional assessment formula, forcing the school committee to go back and redo the town assessments using the statutory formula.
The high school budget remained in limbo until the end of June, when it was finally approved by a two-thirds majority of Island towns in a series of special town meetings. At the Feb. 4 meeting, school committee chairman Susan Parker reminded everyone how difficult and stressful that situation was, and said she saw no advantage in making the towns go through the process of holding special
town meetings again. "We haven't gotten a groundswell of communication from anyone," she said. "From a pragmatic standpoint, we should go ahead, even though we feel the pain."
Since last June, a high school assessment committee made up of selectmen and finance committee members, most of them from Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, has met several times to try to reach a consensus on crafting a new regional agreement. However, as the
assessment committee's chairman, Tisbury FinCom member Jonathan Snyder, reported, "We are no closer to an agreement than when we started."
"We know the odds - the chance of all towns voting for the regional agreement is zero percent," Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Margaret (Peg) Regan told the budget subcommittee. "It was very clear last year, and is still very clear, having met with Oak Bluffs last week, that they are not going to go with the regional formula."
Mr. Weiss said the only written communication he received from Island town leaders came from the Tisbury selectmen, who sent a letter last November requesting that the school committee approve the high school budget using the Island's regional assessment agreement.
The Tisbury selectmen also recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of the town questioning the legality of the statutory formula and naming the state board of education, the acting commissioner of education, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district, and the town of Oak Bluffs as defendants.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel attended the Feb. meeting to reiterate the town's position and to suggest that the school committee could make more of an effort to broker a compromise on a new regional agreement between the Island towns.
Ms. Parker took exception to Mr. Israel's remark and told him that every effort had been made. "I just want to get a budget for the school - that's my primary focus," she said. Ms. Parker also reminded everyone that the DOE awarded "pothole" funds to the Island towns last year, which helped offset some of the financial impact Island towns suffered under the statutory formula.
"The reality is that the high school needs a budget - the high school doesn't need the chaos and infighting we had last year," said committee member Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter of West Tisbury, who made a motion to approve using the statutory formula.
The vote was 4-3, with John Bacheller and Maura Valley, school committee members from Tisbury, and Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah voting against it. Mr. Bacheller said that he has maintained all along that DOE has failed to provide an adequate explanation about the data on which the statutory formula is based and how the assessments are derived. Until someone from the DOE provides him with that information, Mr. Bacheller said he will continue to contest the state's formula.