School budget concerns trigger up-Island selectmen’s meeting

No resolution found for Chilmark, West Tisbury cold war over cost-sharing percentages.

All nine Up-Island selectmen and other officials including superintendent of schools Matt D'Andrea, discuss a UIRSD cost sharing formula that has West Tisbury and Chilmark at odds. —Rich Saltzberg

West Tisbury officials disgruntled with how much the town pays to support the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD), specifically the Chilmark School, took their concerns to a meeting of up-Island selectmen.

At a meeting held Oct. 24 at West Tisbury library, boards from West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah discussed the ongoing issues. A Jan. 12 report by a West Tisbury special town committee, created to analyze the current educational cost allocation formula between the three up-Island towns, concluded that the formula, as it related to Chilmark and West Tisbury, amounted to “financially irresponsible governance.” The report specifically pointed out that the West Tisbury School is underused, while West Tisbury bears a financial burden to support Chilmark School operations. One of the authors of the report was West Tisbury selectman Skipper Manter.

Seated with all nine up-Island selectmen and other officials, West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell, chairman of the meeting, emphasized that West Tisbury selectmen have not endorsed formula changes recommended by the report. Some of those changes, the report estimates, could save West Tisbury approximately $700,000 per year. One change put forth by the report would boost Chilmark’s contribution by $600,000 per year and Aquinnah’s by $1.5 million per year. Ms. Mitchell offered little insight as to why the board hasn’t backed the recommendations, but made it clear that the mood in West Tisbury is still sour on the issue.

“There continues to be sentiment, and I would say mainly from West Tisbury taxpayers and voters, that there’s still an inherent unfairness to the formula,” she said.

“I didn’t take that recommendation seriously. And I didn’t even want to use it as a jumping-off point,” Chilmark selectmen chairman Bill Rossi said. “I don’t think Warren [Doty] and Jim [Malkin] did either.” Mr. Rossi said that Chilmark looks at UIRSD in its totality but that the report did not, because it “reflected the interests of the West Tisbury taxpayer only. And that’s where we have a fairly big difference of opinion …”

Mr. Malkin said that understanding cost allocations can’t be put into context without first knowing more about the five-year plan and vision for the district.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“In both [the] West Tisbury School and Chilmark School I think we do a very, very good job of meeting the needs of our students,” Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea said. “We have an enrichment program. We have a strong special ed program. We have an increasing number of ELL English language learners … we are strong in science. There’s a strong STEM initiative … From a year-to-year basis, we’re always monitoring the needs of our students and adjusting as appropriate.”

Mr. Malkin reminded Mr. D’Andrea that he just signed a six-year contract and has job security, suggesting he needed to be more candid and on point, especially with regard to the state of the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. “We do have an extremely high cost per pupil in the Up-Island Regional School District, which is worrisome to all of our taxpayers, and the issue is where are we going,” Mr. Malkin said. “What’s your view about where we’re going to go with these two facilities?”

“The plan is to continue to evaluate how we’re doing, what the needs of our students are, and make adjustments … you know, curriculum adjustments, instructional adjustments,” Mr. D’Andrea said. He said he doesn’t have a five-year plan.

“It sort of sounds like we’re maintaining the status quo,” Aquinnah selectmen chairman Jim Newman said. He also said there needs to be a vision going forward. The Chilmark School’s cost per pupil exceeds the West Tisbury School’s cost, he said. Overall he said the UIRSD cost per pupil was exceptionally high, and wondered if it’s more cost-effective to provide vouchers to Falmouth.

Mr. Doty put the costs in perspective. He said Chilmark spends $23,000 per student, as compared with West Tisbury at $19,000, Edgartown at $24,000, Nantucket at $20,000, and Wellesley at $22,000.

Mr. Newman said the costs per pupil in the UIRSD, as calculated by the commonwealth, were inaccurate, and amounted to “propaganda.” He noted that if the budget is divided by the number of pupils, the figure is about $40,000 per student.

“Whatever the state says it is, it isn’t. Let’s be honest about it,” he said.

“The added costs up-Island have to do with two buildings in two separate places,” Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Amy Tierney said. An additional factor is the large geographic area the district encompasses, she said, which drives up transportation costs.

Chilmark finance advisory committee member Robert Hannemann said he saw merit in exploring what the financials show after the notion of eliminating the Chilmark School and beefing up the West Tisbury School was discussed. But this was a nonstarter for Chilmark’s selectmen.

In a shot across the bow of the district, Mr. Rossi said that after running some numbers, Chilmark concluded that should they ever secede from UIRSD and run the Chilmark School independently, their costs would be on par with what the town pays to the district.

“It does not feel good to the folks who work in the Chilmark School to be told that their school is frivolous,” Mr. Doty said. “And I know sometimes we suffer from staff morale in the Chilmark School because it feels as though people think the school should be closed — and it’s important that we not feel that way.”

“We’re steadfast on keeping the school and having the school in Chilmark,” Mr. Rossi said.

The meeting concluded without any decisions made.