West Tisbury selectmen reversed course last week and voted unanimously not to support a vote on withdrawing from the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) at special town meeting on Tuesday, June 2.
One week earlier, on May 6, with Selectman Cynthia Mitchell absent, Selectmen Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter and Richard Knabel had voted to place an article on the special town meeting warrant to withdraw from the district.
Selectmen cited a lack of preparation and information to make an informed decision on a breakup of the district that includes the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. They said they plan to form a committee to study the implications of withdrawal.
Special town meeting voters will also confront a revised UIRSD budget. The first UIRSD budget exceeded the Proposition 2.5 limits by $300,000. It passed at town meeting April 14, but the necessary override vote failed at the ballot box two days later.
This week, the UIRSD board passed a budget reduction plan that reduces West Tisbury’s share and eliminates the need for an override vote if the budget request passes at the special town meeting.
The article to withdraw grew out of longstanding concerns about what some town residents think are a lack of proportionate representation and higher costs for West Tisbury taxpayers, and what selectmen perceived as a reluctance of the UIRSD board to address budget overruns in meaningful ways.
“I feel strongly that whatever we do, we should be in agreement, but I am also concerned that there has been no preparation for this for the voters,” said Selectman Richard Knabel. “There will be questions that need to be answered about the financial impact both on West Tisbury and the district in general. I am hesitant to put this before the voters, because the history of this is when voters aren’t sure, when there is doubt in their minds, when there are unanswered questions, they vote no.
“I think it is our responsibility to put as much information in front of them, since we are initiating this, as possible, and we haven’t done it. I would like to see a joint effort between the selectmen and the finance committee to come up with that analysis.
“It will take time to do this, and I think we need to do it right.
“I don’t disagree in principle, but I am concerned about the financial impact we’re up against.”
Selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, a member of UIRSD, spoke in favor of the motion to withdraw. “The school, I guess you could say, responded to the ballot question by reducing the assessment by $300,000 to the town,” he said; “however, they have not reduced spending to bring their budget under the proposition spending cap. By taking this vote in June, not only does it put them on notice, hopefully they will do a better job.”
Finance committee member Gary Montrowl said that the FinCom has recommended the first article on the revised warrant, but decided not to take any action on the article to withdraw. He said the FinCom is in the same position as the selectmen.
“I feel we have the best results when we can provide the town with the best information,” he said. “I didn’t see that we as the FinCom have sufficient information to make an argument in a compelling way to the town.”
Mr. Montrowl said he sees the UIRSD board decision to reduce the assessment to the town as just a first step in addressing the budget issues. He said that the FinCom would wholeheartedly support the formation of a committee to analyze the implications of withdrawal from the district.
He said that from the FinCom’s perspective, it would be important to conduct a systematic study with input from the town accountant, and using outside resources when necessary.
Chairman of the Selectmen Cynthia Mitchell agreed that there is not enough time to prepare for the meeting. “I don’t like asking the voters to render an opinion on something they have no real way to evaluate, and we don’t have enough time to pull the information together. This is an important decision,” she said.
She said that a decision of this magnitude should be made at the annual town meeting, rather than at the fall or a special town meeting, when a committee to study the issue could be fully prepared.
Ms. Mitchell said that without input from the school and other concerned parties, the article would not pass. “We, the town, if the school opposes it, will lose. Just because of the sheer numbers.”
“There are a host of questions to be asked before you can sit down and sort out the numbers,” said Mr. Knabel.
Town accountant Bruce Stone said, “Before you even get to a cost analysis, there are a lot of questions about separation and the legal aspects.”