High school reviews regional funding formula

Formula may only be changed by unanimous vote from all Island towns.

The regional agreement sub-committee met Wednesday to discuss the high school funding formula.

The high school regional agreement subcommittee met in the Performing Arts Center Wednesday to discuss possible changes to the funding formula, which dictates how much each Island town contributes to funding the school.

School committee member Amy Houghton told the small group that there is interest in reviewing the language of the document to improve clarity. Because the document has been amended over the years, Houghton said it is necessary to regularly review it to make sure everything is in order. “This document has been amended, and maybe the language is not as clearly written as it could be,” Houghton said.

In order for anything to be changed within the regional agreement, all six Island towns have to vote at town meeting.

Houghton said that in the wake of the failed vote from Oak Bluffs to renovate or reconstruct the high school, the school committee has been more interested in looking at the formula in hopes of finding better ways to fund large capital projects.

She said she hopes to reorient the formula to be more focused on creating a resource for the entire Island. “This shouldn’t just be about the attendance of students — but for games, the use of the PAC, and creating a broader vision of the school as a community hub,” Houghton said.

Houghton wondered if there was a possibility that the towns would consider a funding formula that separates capital expenditures from the normal operational budget.

She suggested another option, in which schools that pay more to support the high school also get a larger portion of the voting power.

“The town of Tisbury pays for 27 percent of the high school; should Tisbury get 27 percent of the vote with anything related to the high school?” she asked.

Currently, the funding formula is based on a per-pupil rate, meaning that the more kids attending the high school from a particular town, the more that town pays.

One approach Houghton mentioned was an equalized property value approach, which would base the amount each town pays toward the school on overall property value.

Finance manager for the high school Mark Friedman said two years ago, Oak Bluffs made a formal vote at annual town meeting to request a change in the formula, to be based on property values.

Chilmark selectman Bill Rossi said Chilmark would be “very much against that approach,” because Chilmark is such a small town, but its property values are high. “We would be expressing our points of view to residents, and hope they would follow us in not supporting that,” Rossi said.

West Tisbury selectman and school committee member Skipper Manter agreed with Rossi, saying, “That approach is grossly unfair.”

Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck said he has read 35 regional agreements from all over Massachusetts, and the standard funding formula is on a per-student basis.

“It’s always seductive to look at the town next to you and say maybe they could pick up some of my tab,” Smadbeck said. “But if you use this approach, three towns get whacked and three towns make out.” Smadbeck said that West Tisbury, Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs would save money, but Chilmark, Edgartown, and Aquinnah would get hit hard.

“Trying to come up with a formula that is going to pass the three towns that get whacked, I don’t see that happening,” Smadbeck said. “It’s too much of a stretch to think that we are going to change the funding formula just because we have a building to build — trying to change the formula, I think, is a waste of time.”