All-Island School Committee debates budget allocation formula

The Up-Island Regional School District committee approved a $10.6 million fiscal year 2017 budget Monday night.— File photo by Janet Hefler

The formula under which the six Island towns pay a share of the public school shared services budget was a major point of contention at a meeting of the All-Island School Committee Tuesday night. At issue was the fact that the individual town in which a school is located must pay for the cost of educating that child, not the town where that student lives.

Under the current method, the high school pays 20 percent of the budget costs, and the three towns with elementary schools — Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury — and the up-Island district (West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah) are responsible for the school-site enrollment costs, or the costs associated with the number of students physically in each respective school.

In essence, towns and the up-Island district are responsible for school-choice students who attend their schools, regardless of the student’s home address. For example, if a student from Oak Bluffs chooses to attend the West Tisbury School, West Tisbury is responsible for the costs of that student, not Oak Bluffs. That point drove much of the discussion.

The current formula was based on the view that the costs average out over a period of several years. School business administrator Amy Tierney put together a worksheet that showed the total costs using the current enrollment method, and the alternative method, in which elementary schools would pay based on the sending town’s census.

The up-Island regional school district, which receives 45 school-choice students, saw the biggest change. If the formula was adjusted to reflect costs from only students in the district, the total up-Island cost would be $1.19 million, compared to $1.35 million under the current method. Edgartown, which this year sent out 14 more students than it received, would go up about $51,000 under the alternative formula. Tisbury, which sent 31 more students than it received, would go up about $113,000. Oak Bluffs, which sent an equal amount of students as it received, would remain steady at $1.54 million.

“It’s an unfair fiscal burden that’s being put on the up-Island district,” Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury, who spearheaded the discussion and has brought up the formula method in the past, said. “We’re talking about $150,000-plus. You have to understand the pressure we’re under having to pay for your student’s school-choice participation. It’s a lot of money, and it’s time to realize there’s a problem here.”

Michael Marcus of West Tisbury called it a “flaw in the system,” and asked the committee to change the formula immediately.

Many members, however, advocated for taking more time to look at the numbers, which change from year to year based on the school-choice program.

“It’s impossible to do this in one night with no thought,” school committee chairman Colleen McAndrews of Tisbury said. “I don’t know how in good conscience somebody could have that swing happen in one night and hit budgets that have already been approved.”

Amy Houghton of Tisbury suggested looking at how the change might affect Chapter 70 funding, which establishes the minimum spending requirements for each school and each municipality’s share of school costs, in addition to providing state aid to public schools. Several committee members said re-looking at the high school allocation, currently at 20 percent, is also necessary.

Bruce Stone, West Tisbury town accountant, suggested looking at how the state defines a financially responsible school, and the state method for funding school-choice students.

According the Massachusetts Department of Education, the general description of “foundation enrollment” is a count of the number of students a school district is financially responsible for, including local resident children attending the community’s local or regional school district, and students the district is paying for, including students from other school districts. A count of “resident pupils” include those enrolled who are living in the district, or are nonresident children of teachers working in the district, and excludes any nonresident student enrolled at the district through school choice.

Susan Mercier of Edgartown suggested taking a holistic look at the formula by putting together a subcommittee. Mr. Manter disagreed, and pushed to hold a vote within a month.

“I don’t think it should take longer than a month,” he said. “I don’t see why we can’t make a decision before the fiscal budgets are actually sent.”

Mr. Marcus said delaying the vote would be a burden to the up-Island school district.

“It’s like we’re a region until it’s advantageous to not be a region,” he said. “It’s so obvious to me that you should pay for the headcount of the students that are in your town. If your efforts are to just sort of punt and move it another year, you’re happy to keep the burden in our lap.”

Not all up-Island members expressed that view.

“Most of the budgets aren’t certified by the towns until the spring, and therefore we could sort of stop this contentious conversation and say this is clearly something that needs to be looked at, and meet in the middle somewhere,” Kate DeVane of West Tisbury said, adding that it needs to be be looked at faster than it has in the past.

“There is a timely nature to this topic, but I think it’s reasonable to see where we are in January,” Robert Lionette of Chilmark said. “This document is a little more difficult than I had anticipated, because it brought into discussion things that are much bigger than just the school-choice piece. I’m not comfortable making any judgments on a whole slew of components here.”

The committee tentatively agreed to hold an open workshop to discuss the formula during the second week of January, and potentially hold a vote at the next All-Island School Committee meeting, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 27.