All-Island School Committee addresses budget allocation formula

The All-Island School Committee agreed to take more time to mull over several new formula options that Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea presented to the group. — Photo by Cathryn McCann

The All-Island School Committee met last week night to discuss the allocation formula for the superintendent’s shared services budget, an issue that has roiled recent budget discussions. Following a lengthy discussion among school committee members, several selectmen, town representatives, and school educators, the committee agreed to take more time to mull over several new formula options Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea presented to the group.

Committee member and West Tisbury selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter has spearheaded opposition to the current formula, under which the six Island towns pay a share of the public school shared services budget based on the number of students in a town’s school and not the town where that student lives.

The formula was initially based on the thought that the costs average out over a period of several years.

Wednesday night, Mr. D’Andrea provided a comprehensive presentation that looked at several topics: Chapter 70 state funding, the high school percentage share, and the finer details of the formula as defined by the state.

Costs and reimbursements

The issue largely revolves around state funding. Chapter 70 funding is a part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which aims to ensure that each school district has the necessary resources to provide an equal education to all its students, and, specifically, enough money. To do so, the state comes up with a “foundation budget” for each school district, or the minimum amount of money it determines each district needs to educate students. Then it calculates each town’s ability to contribute to the costs of education to determine Chapter 70 funding.

The second piece to the puzzle is the concept of school choice.

“We have school choice on the Island, and that’s a good thing,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “It’s something we want to have; it provides students with opportunities. As we all know, each of our schools is very different, and having that choice is really beneficial to our kids.”

When a student chooses to attend a school outside of his or her school district, the Chapter 70 funding is taken off the sending district’s assessment and awarded to the receiving district’s revolving account.

In effect, $5,000 worth of state funding follows the student to whichever school district he or she chooses, including additional funding if the student requires special education services.

Currently, Edgartown receives eight school choice students and sends 33 out of the town. Oak Bluffs receives 36 and sends 29. Tisbury receives 18 and sends 43. The Up-Island Regional School District receives 57 and sends 14.

Every school opts into the process, and only receives as many students as it can accommodate. All schools participate in the various shared services, like English language learning, the Bridge program, and occupational therapy, for example, in varying amounts depending on school space and need.

The issue with the formula lies with whether the state funding is enough to cover the costs of the school choice children. Island schools that take on more school choice students pay more money to the shared services budget because it is based on the receiving school’s census. In essence, the more students the school has, the more money it pays toward the superintendent’s shared services budget.

Other formulas considered

At Thursday’s meeting, Mr. D’Andrea presented five alternative funding options with the recommendation that the committee not change the current formula this year.

“We are in the middle of the game right now,” he said. “Changing it right now would be very unfair to those who have made decisions based on the way things are now.” He said it may be worth looking at and possibly changing for next year and phasing in over time.

Under the current formula, Up-Island pays about 25.3 percent, Edgartown about 24.3 percent, Oak Bluffs about 28.7 percent, and Tisbury about 21.5 percent. The high school accounts for a fixed 20 percent share of the superintendent’s shared services budget, an amount which is then passed back to taxpayers in the form of each town’s high school assessment.

In four out of the five options, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Up-Island benefit from a change in the formula. The Tisbury School incurs more costs on all the options.

The first option is that the high school share remain at 20 percent of the budget, but the elementary schools pay based on the sending town census. For example, a Tisbury child who attends the West Tisbury school would be paid for in the shared services budget by the town of Tisbury. That option would benefit the Up-Island District by alleviating $166,864 worth of costs. Tisbury’s costs, however, would increase by $151,964. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown’s costs would go up slightly.

The second option is that all districts be assessed based on their sending enrollment, including the high school, which participates in some of the shared services programs, and thus would take on about 10 percent more of the costs. The high school share would be $304,038 more, Tisbury would pay $77,879 more, and Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Up-Island would pay significantly less.

The third option is that all districts pay based on the foundation enrollment, as determined by the state. Similar to option two, the high school costs would go up $300,334, Tisbury’s costs would go up $53,180, and all the other schools’ costs would go down.

The fourth option is that the high school account for a fixed 30 percent share, which results in similar numbers to option two and three. The fifth option is that the high school accounts for a fixed 30 percent share, and the elementary schools pay a fixed 25 percent share, which also had results similar to option three. The committee could also opt to keep the formula as it currently stands.

Need more time

Following the presentation, there was a general agreement that the committee needed to take more time to consider the issue, the options, and have more discussions with the individual towns.

West Tisbury town accountant Bruce Stone suggested finding a better way to allocate shared services costs. He pointed out that since the high school costs are allocated back to the towns, the net effect of changing the high school percentage would be immaterial to the taxpayers, merely shifting the source of the burden, but not the burden.

Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck advocated for creating a consensus over time.

“No matter what option you look at, the town of Tisbury seems to suddenly have a lot more money to pay, so that would give me pause right off the bat,” he said. “I think that anytime we’re going to make some kind of change that shifts how we’re doing things, it should be done by consensus.”

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel agreed. “From a town that does look like we would be the most impacted … I hope we can get some consensus and take our time if there’s going to be any change,” he said. “I just wanted to echo that.”

Not everyone agreed, however.

“The fact of the matter is that it’s costing Up-Island a lot of money to participate in the school choice program,” Up-Island school committee member Michael Marcus said. “When I think about $160,000 this year alone, to me that’s the playground that we haven’t been able to fund for the past two years.”

Up-Island school committee member Robert Lionette of Chilmark pointed out that Up-Island receives school choice students because they have the space and resources to do so.

“We shouldn’t be looking to Tisbury to build our playground,” he said. “For years we’ve discussed the idea that there’s not an appreciable cost to bring extra kids in. The discussion should not be that other towns are ripping us off and we’re not getting our fair share.”

“When the population of the school goes up, the cost goes up,” Mr. Marcus countered. He said he agreed with giving students school choice flexibility, but not if it gives a school financial burden.

“Which is why each year we voted,” Mr. Lionette said. “I think it’s been fairly clear for a while that we have that surplus. We’re increasing our budget; it’s not because we’ve added kids, it’s because we’ve added programming. And now we don’t want to share that programming? We’ve already made that commitment. That’s our burden.”

Ultimately, the committee agreed to take more time to consider the formula and any changes that might be made.

“We’re all in agreement that this is not something that’s going to happen in this budget cycle … so why not take it back to the individual school committees, discuss it, and come back more informed?” Kate DeVane of West Tisbury said. “We have made some movement forward this evening, but there’s no need to rush it.”

Committee chairman Colleen McAndrews agreed, and said the topic will be put on the agenda for the next All-Island School Committee meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 27.

A long history

The current formula for allocating the shared services budget is not new; however, Mr. D’Andrea could not determine exactly when the formula was enacted.

“They [the attorneys] have gone back in the records as far back as the ’80s, and they cannot find anything that says how this formula was determined,” Mr. D’Andrea said. The Island became a superintendency union in the late 1800s, briefly dissolved in 1992, then reconstituted when the up-Island district regionalized, he said. They will continue searching for the minutes from that time, which may provide clarification.

However, Mr. D’Andrea was able to dig up prior discussions about the formula. In October 2008, the committee presented the option of making the home districts financially responsible for school choice students. It was voted down. They looked at having the high school pay an equal enrollment percentage portion, rather than the fixed 20 percent. The idea was tabled and never voted on. In November 2008, they voted to keep the formula the same. In September and October 2009, the committee looked at the formula, and considered four alternative options. The committee voted 9-1 to keep the formula the same. The formula was looked at again in October 2011, November 2011, and November 2013, and each time the formula was kept the same and the matter was considered resolved.