Up-Island Regional School District will stay in school choice program

The committee continued to wrangle over the estimated $300,000 to $400,000 cost to address heating problems at the Chilmark School.

A number of repairs to the heating system at the Chilmark school have to be done. – MV Times file photo

With a state-set deadline of June 1 just weeks away, Up-Island Regional School District committee members Monday night voted 4-1 to continue to participate in the Island-wide school choice program.

The school choice formula has been up for debate for several months. At issue is the requirement that towns pay for educating the students in their schools, whether the student lives in that town or not. The formula is based on the view that the costs average out over a period of several years.

Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury was the lone vote opposed. Theresa Manning of Aquinnah, Kate DeVane of West Tisbury, and Robert Lionette of Chilmark voted yes, as did Michael Marcus of West Tisbury, but with a caveat: “Next year it’s going to be a totally different ballgame,” he said.

This year, the up-Island district accepted 57 students, which is more than any other individual Island elementary school. $5,000 worth of state funding follows the student to whichever school district he or she chooses, with additional funding if the student requires special education services.

At the heart of the disagreement over the formula is whether state funding is enough to cover the shared-services costs of the school choice children. Island schools that take on more school choice students pay more money to the superintendent’s shared-services budget because it is based on the receiving school’s census.

Under the current method, the high school pays 20 percent of the shared-services 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, the more students the school has, the more money it pays toward the shared-services budget. Every school opts into the school choice process, however, and only receives as many students as it can accommodate.

“It’s a point well taken that the principals still control the flow — what the schools are able to handle, and the cost and impact on the school,” Ms. Manning said Monday. “I think to make the decision to opt out of a policy that’s been longstanding is a rush … I would prefer to not make a decision to opt out of something, which would be making a hard and fast rule about something that many of our kids on the Island have benefited from having.” She said progress has been made by opening up a broader conversation with the other school committees, but that it would be “bully-ish on our part to be taking a firm stand.”

Ms. DeVane said the school choice formula and the shared-services formula are two separate issues, and it’s the shared-services formula that really needs to be looked at: “I am extremely hopeful that over the next year, we’re going to look really closely at the shared-services costs …That being said, I think we should decide that if we get nowhere with the shared-services piece — as we have been having trouble getting there — then when it comes to next year’s vote on school choice, we will have said, Well, we were supposedly going to do this, and we didn’t do it, so now we need to take the strong-arm approach.”

Chilly in Chilmark

Also Monday, the school committee heard from Marc Rosenbaum, director of engineering and owner of South Mountain Co., about the long list of repairs necessary to bring the Chilmark School’s heating and ventilation system up to par. The 12,000-square-foot, seven-room school was built in 1999 at a cost of about $3.6 million.

Early in the school year, Chilmark School officials faced a potential crisis when one boiler stopped working entirely, and another showed signs of aging. “We had concerns about whether or not we would have heat in the school for the winter,” Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea said. One boiler was replaced, at a cost of about $37,000.

Upon further assessment, Mr. Rosenbaum said, the school had a completely failed temperature-control system — the ventilation system competed with the heating system to control the temperature. As a result, temperature control was difficult, and oil usage was very high. Additionally, the hallways were too hot, thermostats were installed sporadically, and valve actuators had failed. “I can’t explain why the building is the way it is,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.

To provide a comfortable environment this winter, South Mountain installed new thermostats for better temperature control in each room.

Monday, Mr. Rosenbaum gave a lengthy presentation about further repairs that should be done, including creating an automated temperature-control system based on the outdoor temperature, installing a more efficient ventilation system, sealing the area where all the pipes are located with more insulation, and fixing “leaky construction” in some classrooms.

About $100,000 has been spent on repairs so far this school year. Mr. Rosenbaum said he expects the remaining essential repairs to cost another $200,000. To fix everything at once, however, would likely be another $300,000. The choice is whether to spend $300,000 or $400,000. A loan the school committee approved earlier this year can cover the immediate costs, but the school committee has been discussing how to offset some of the additional costs, whether through excess and deficiency funds, going back to the taxpayers for additional funding, or creating a capital improvement fund.

“I want to see us finish, and finish in good form, and finish in good time and in good cause,” Mr. Marcus said. “It ills me to drag it out knowing that we’ve got more to get done.”

Mr. Manter said he didn’t want to compromise on getting the entire heating system put in place.

“I think we should spend, as much as it hurts, what is appropriate … When we have the whole list in front of us, there may be a couple of things that we can live without,” Mr. Manter said. “I don’t want to to tie your hands and say, ‘OK, $200,000, do the best you can.’ I don’t think that’s the best way of doing this.”

Mr. Rosenbaum said that over the next six weeks, his team will work on pricing the whole scope of the project, and make a recommendation for a minimum design and any additional pieces.

“We’re going to look at this as a fragmented project, so you’ll have as much flexibility picking from that menu,” he said. “We all would like to do the job right and be done with it.”