Chilmark principal explains friction with school committee

West Tisbury selectmen distance themselves from town committee members.

After running into roadblocks at the Up-Island School Committee, Chilmark School officials opted to alternatively finance playground repairs. Questions about how enrollment works at the school remains a hot button issue between West Tisbury and Chilmark committee members. — Gabrielle Mannino

Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens said unwritten district policy and mischaracterization of maintenance are the root causes of problems she recently brought to the Chilmark executive secretary’s attention.

Stevens said the priority placement issue of Chilmark preschoolers wishing spots in Chilmark’s kindergarten does not affect Chilmark and Aquinnah students, but rather students from the Island’s four other towns. An informal agreement approved by former school superintendent James Weiss prioritizes all pupils in the preschool for attendance in the kindergarten, Stevens said. She framed it as a type of school choice issue. “I think it’s an expectation of people who send their children to the preschool,” she said.

Stevens said parents from across the Island have become invested in the Chilmark community and the school. Many make long daily drives to deliver their children, and want to keep their connection to the town after such sacrifices, she said.

Chilmark is different from any other Island school because it has a preschool built into it, Stevens said.

The Chilmark School currently enjoys high enrollment based in part on the feeder model it operates, Stevens said, whereby students in the preschool move into the kindergarten. She hopes to keep the preschool-to-kindergarten feeder intact. “I feel like it’s in the best interest of the preschool kids,” she said.

As to work taking place in the playground, Stevens said she was accused, among other things, of designing a playground without consulting the Up-Island School Committee.

“I’m replacing a Big Toy with a Big Toy. I’m replacing a set of monkey bars with monkey bars. I’m just really doing maintenance,” she said.

The Big Toy feature has already been removed. It was so decayed “it fell apart in the hands” of the person removing it, she said.

To clarify, she said, she did not ask the district for money for the replacement playground features, and was trying to be fiscally responsible by using alternate sources of funding.

“There’ve been so many hard feelings between West Tisbury and Chilmark I just didn’t want to ask for money,” she said.

“We had the up-Island school treasurer present the RFP,” she said. When the committee found out, they took issue, according to Stevens.

“Turns out [the RFP] can be only be posted by who is paying for it,” she said.

Stevens said she was unaware the treasurer isn’t allowed to send out an RFP on a project not funded by the school district. It just seemed a matter of course for maintaining the school grounds.

“If I did something procedurally incorrect, I apologize,” she said. Going forward she plans to work through the town of Chilmark, she said. “The selectmen, Tim Carroll, they’ve been very supportive.”

The Times asked West Tisbury selectmen at their Wednesday meeting if concerns in Chilmark about West Tisbury being against Chilmark’s feeder model are accurate.
“That’s really a regional Up-Island School Committee issue. You’d have to ask the West Tisbury representative on the school committee,” selectmen chairman and school committee member Skip Manter said. “Actually, there’s no West Tisbury representative. We all represent equally.”

“It is certainly not the opinion of the board of selectmen,” selectmen Cynthia Mitchell said. “We have not discussed it. And it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the people who live in the town. It reflects the opinion of the members who spoke.”

Robert Lionette, who represents Chilmark on the Up-Island School Committee, downplayed the two issues as being indicative of Chilmark–West Tisbury tensions about Chilmark School closure. However, he recalled “meetings in the past where that sentiment has been front and center.”

Lionette conceded there were some small procedural “missteps” in the procurement process of the playground features, but that he stood by solidly behind Stevens’ work as a whole.

Lionette said Stevens and other town officials secured funding for the playground features with “incredible speed” in what is otherwise a glacial fiscal environment. Moreover, he said that was done with no expense to the district.

“My hawkish friend [Skip Manter] should be applauding that more, rather than criticizing,” he said.

As to the issues of school choice, Lionette said the scrutiny the Chilmark School has received lately is reflective of the school’s success — enrollment has swelled. However, those pupils from outside the district have become a “flashpoint,” he said. “Some believe it costs us a lot more to educate a child that comes from outside the district,” he said.

On that subject, both West Tisbury town accountant Bruce Stone and Chilmark finance advisory committee member Rob Hanneman worked out separate calculations on relative costs. Neither of them could be immediately reached for comment. Chilmark selectman Jim Malkin told The Times he was unsure if the two have been able to compare calculations since the last Up-Island selectmen’s meeting, when the broad strokes of their figures came to light.

Lionette also said another element of pressure is that the district is close to capacity.

He felt it was time to “codify” the unwritten rules of enrollment for the Chilmark School through committee work.

Lastly, he pointed out the district’s two schools work rather differently — each can cater to different parents’ needs and desires. The West Tisbury School, he said, operates more traditionally, with “distinguished lines between subject matter” and adherence to standard grouping of pupils by grade and and age. Conversely, the Chilmark School he characterized as a STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics] school where education is a multi-age mixture.

Healthwise, he said, a nurse is present at the West Tisbury School five days a week, whereas a nurse is at the Chilmark School only one day a week.

While different, each school provides excellent education, he said.