Judge dismisses Tisbury lawsuit on school funding

Associate Justice of the Superior Court Cornelius J. Moriarty 2nd recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by Tisbury in 2008 in protest of the state’s statutory school funding formula, according to a summary judgment entered December 3.

Tisbury town counsel David Doneski filed the town’s lawsuit in January 2008 in the Dukes County Superior Court at the request of then selectmen Tristan Israel, Tom Pachico, and Denys Wortman.

The legal complaint called for a declaratory judgment on the application of the state’s formula for determining assessments in regional school districts, how it was phased in, and whether Tisbury’s share was equitable.

“The plaintiff has not shown that the regulations governing the statutory assessment method or the application of the statutory assessment method with respect to Tisbury exceeded the State Defendants’ authority, that they have been applied in any illegal, arbitrary, or capricious manner, or that there is no conceivable ground upon which they may be upheld,” Judge Moriarty wrote in his eight-page memorandum of decision and order dated November 29.

“Although we’re disappointed in that we hoped for a better outcome, I think the issue remains, and we’ll go back to the drawing board to see what other options we have at our disposal to deal with this ongoing issue,” Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee said in a phone call last week.

Mr. Israel, who remains an outspoken critic of the state’s assessment formula at selectmen’s meetings and town meetings, said he had no comment for The Times about the lawsuit’s outcome in a phone call Tuesday.

Tisbury’s lawsuit named the Massachusetts board of education, acting commissioner of education Jeffrey Nellhaus, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District, and the town of Oak Bluffs as defendants.

In an interview in January 2008, Mr. Doneski, an attorney from the firm of Kopelman and Paige in Boston, told The Times that Oak Bluffs was named as a defendant in the lawsuit because it was the first town to vote to depart from the Island’s regional agreement, which was the focus of the dispute.

As a result, the lawsuit actually put the bite on Tisbury and Oak Bluffs taxpayers twice, since they paid their towns’ legal expenses, as well as a portion of the regional high school district’s legal expenses.

When asked last week how much the lawsuit cost Tisbury taxpayers, Mr. Bugbee said he did not know but would contact Mr. Doneski for the information. In a follow-up phone call Tuesday, Mr. Bugbee said had not received an answer yet.

The changes in the school funding formula stemmed from the Education Reform Act of 1993. In 2006 the legislature enacted a new formula, the aggregate wealth model, mandated to go into effect in fiscal year 2007 (FY07).

According to state education officials, the formula was 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.

“Choosing how the Commonwealth should meet its obligation to educate its children, including the financial aspects, is fundamentally political and is left to the Governor and the Legislature,” Judge Moriarty also wrote in his decision.

Regional agreement vs. state formula

Up until 2007, the Island’s six towns contributed to the cost of the regional high school on a per-pupil basis according to the terms of a regional agreement in effect since 1954.

The state’s new statutory assessment formula, however, took into account each regional school district member town’s aggregate wealth, based on its total equalized property value (EPV) and its total income.

Under the new statutory formula, Tisbury’s assessment for MVRHS increased by $234,459 for fiscal year 2008 (FY08), while the assessment for Oak Bluffs decreased by about $435,000, despite an enrollment of 31 more students than Tisbury enrolled at the high school.

Among the other towns, Aquinnah’s assessment decreased by about $61,000, while assessments increased for Chilmark by $75,258, Edgartown by $86,000, and West Tisbury by $122,000.

“The Legislature’s intention to assure fair and adequate minimum per student funding for public schools does not confer upon Tisbury a right to be free from being assessed a proportionately higher amount (compared to other District members) of the District’s funding needs pursuant to the statutory assessment method,” Judge Moriarty wrote in his decision.

While state education officials acknowledged that data used to determine the Island’s formula numbers was somewhat flawed, they assured town officials that at the end of a five-year transition period, the assessment amounts would be similarly apportioned to those in the Island’s existing regional agreement.

The transition period has since been extended, however, due to cutbacks in state education funds to school districts because of the economy.

An Island divided

During the phase-in period for the statutory assessment method, Tisbury was assessed amounts higher than it would have been under the Island’s regional agreement. In addition to the FY08 increase, Tisbury paid an additional $110,521 for FY09, $83,331 for FY10, and $79,833 for FY11.

Regulations approved by the state Board of Education in January 2007 required regional school committees to vote on the assessment formula they would recommend to their member towns.

Under the new regulations, since the Island’s existing regional formula would be considered an alternative method to the state’s statutory formula, it required the unanimous approval of all six towns by July 1, 2007, to keep it intact. The statutory formula, however, required the approval of only four of the six towns.

The MVRHS school committee approved the regional high school budget using the Island’s existing regional agreement to determine town assessments.

Oak Bluffs voters, however, rejected the Island’s regional agreement at their town meeting on April 10, 2007, and torpedoed any possibility of unanimous approval. The MVRHS school committee then had no choice but to go back and redo the town assessments using the state’s statutory formula.

In protest, a majority of Tisbury voters at a special town meeting in June 2007 subsequently rejected an article to fund the town’s FY08 regional high school assessment using the statutory formula.

However, Aquinnah and West Tisbury voters subsequently approved the statutory formula, followed by Chilmark voters, which provided a majority vote of approval among the towns and ended the contentious battle. Edgartown voters finally approved the formula at a special town meeting in December 2007.

Mindful of that experience, the MVRHS District school committee has since voted to recommend the state’s statutory formula.