Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury selectmen review school report

Selectmen met to review a West Tisbury task force report that recommended changes in the school funding formula.

Town officials, from left: Aquinnah selectmen Gary Haley, Juli Vanderhoop, and Jim Newman; West Tisbury Selectmen Cynthia Mitchell, Richard Knabel, and J. Skipper Manter; Chilmark selectmen Bill Rossi and Warren Doty. – Edie Prescott

A selectmen trifecta — West Tisbury, Aquinnah, and Chilmark — met Tuesday night at the Howes House in West Tisbury to discuss a school task force report commissioned by West Tisbury selectmen and released in April, which said while it would make economic sense to close the Chilmark School, the recommended course of action would be to revise the Up-Island Regional School District agreement to shift more of the Chilmark School costs to Chilmark.

West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah share the costs to educate students in the K-8 West Tisbury School and the K-5 Chilmark School. West Tisbury officials have long believed its town taxpayers shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs. The report used financial information and a budget analysis by West Tisbury accountant Bruce Stone to argue its case that Chilmark should be paying more to maintain its own school.

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting, reiterated several times that closing the Chilmark School “was not on the table.”

Chilmark selectmen said they needed to undertake their own analysis, and agreed with Aquinnah selectmen to wait for the superintendent’s office to provide the data Mr. Stone relied on for his analysis. At the same time, they invited West Tisbury selectmen to make a proposal of what they think is fair. If there is agreement, the goal would be to present a revised formula at spring 2017 annual town meetings.

Martha’s Vineyard public schools (MVPS) Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea and Amy Tierney, business administrator, attended the meeting. Mr. D’Andrea’s main suggestion was that “in order to change the formula, people really need to understand the formula.”

Mr. Knabel briefly reviewed the report and summarized options: To leave the regional agreement exactly as it is; for West Tisbury to withdraw from the Up-Island Regional School District; to revise the regional agreement to shift more of the Chilmark School costs to the town of Chilmark; and to commission a full study for West Tisbury to exit the district.

The task force chose option three, to look at shifting more costs to Chilmark.

“I’m hoping to hear what your recommendation would be for a formula that we could go back and do our analysis and see where we stand to see what the Chilmark School is costing,” Chilmark selectman Bill Rossi said.

“I’ll go with Bill’s statement,” Chilmark selectman Warren Doty said.

West Tisbury selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, who has been outspoken with respect to school costs, sat quietly as the discussion proceeded.

“We know West Tisbury’s not comfortable,” said Mr. Rossi. “Skipper usually talks a lot.”

“Maybe that time is now,” said Mr. Knabel.

“Not yet,” said a tight-lipped Mr. Manter, drawing audience laughter.

“You are going to tell me when that is?” asked Mr. Knabel.

“You’ll know,” said Mr. Manter.

Later Mr. Doty chimed in. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but when I get this report and look at it, after the second paragraph on page two, I just said, ‘Whoa – to me that’s just attitude.’ I love the Chilmark School, and we’re going to keep it.”

“If you had read further, you would have seen that is exactly what we said,” Mr. Knabel said.

“Let’s keep the meeting cordial,” Mr. Manter said. “I’ll save my remarks for the next one.”

Aquinnah selectman Juli Vanderhoop said she was concerned that children from Aquinnah would lose their choice of alternatives. “The operation of both schools is so important,” she said.

“One of the underlying assumptions that the task force made was that the Chilmark School will continue to operate until such a time as Chilmark decides it does not want to operate it,” Mr. Knabel said.

West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell raised a question.

“It seems to me that this task force had membership from all three towns, and essentially agreed as the third recommendation that the costs of the Chilmark School be looked at and the formula revised, which must mean that they accept the work of the town accountant. Rather than redo the analysis, could we do that together to move it along as quickly as possible?” asked Ms. Mitchell.

“Bruce [Stone] has admitted himself throughout the [task force] meetings that a significant part of this is beyond his expertise,” said task force member and up-Island regional school committee member Robert Lionette of Chilmark. “He spoke very specifically that the nuances of school budgets are not his strength, and that he could only go so far. Bruce’s diligent work was not comprehensive, by his own admission.”

“It is a complex formula, but I would like to say that I agree with all the numbers that came out of Bruce, and I don’t think there is anyone on the Island I would trust more to do that,” MVPS business administrator Amy Tierney said.

“I would hope that West Tisbury would say at some point, enough, let’s do something to make it fair,” said task force member Susan Silk of West Tisbury.

“Our school has been on the defensive for the past 20 years,” said Chilmark finance committee member Susan Murphy. “Yes, Chilmark is an expensive school to run, and Chilmarkers are willing to pay what it costs to run it.”

Following the meeting, Mr. Knabel told The Times, “Everybody had an initial opportunity to say what they thought, and we made as much progress as I thought we could make in our first meeting.”

“It went fine,” Mr. Rossi told The Times after the meeting. “We need to form our own analysis of how much our school costs us to run, and if it’s more beneficial to Chilmark to run our school independently or to still be part of the district based on whatever proposal comes our way.”