Chilmark convened a special town meeting Monday night, and in back-to-back majority voice votes shot down two articles meant to address high school and regional school district funding. A third article, requesting $45 to settle a recycling invoice from Bruno’s Rolloff, passed handily.
The first article asked whether to allow Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to use $229,730 in excess and deficiency funds to cover deficits in the school’s “heating oil, building maintenance, and transportation” budgets.
Ahead of the votes, selectman Jim Malkin voiced an unflattering appraisal of it. Malkin pointed out Chilmark first received a school budget, then an amended budget, then was asked to hold a special town meeting to plug budget holes. Now the town was at its second meeting about school budgetary matters, he noted.
“The items before you, one which is the lease which is coming up for a school bus, and the other contains labor costs related to transportation, these costs have been known about for two years,” he said. “And it’s the opinion certainly of myself, our school committee member, who voted against this E&D appropriation, our finance committee, that this reflects a lack of oversight in terms of the school budget, and process. It should have been dealt with in the first budget proposal, or the amended budget proposal, or last in our first special town meeting. And given the fact that this town and Island will be looking at a renovation of the high school, or a rebuild of the high school, that’s projected to cost more than $120 million, we think, and I certainly think, that it’s absolutely imperative that whatever processes, procedures are necessary for accurate financial reporting, capital oversight, and project management be in place before we can proceed with this type of issue. And I would urge the town to vote no on this article.”
“What’s important to understand is that by not spending this money, it’s not that these projects can’t be done, it’s choices that are being made that are concerning,” Robert Lionette, who represents Chilmark on the regional school committee, said.
There are “other mechanisms” in the school budget to handle the spending items, Lionette said. He emphasized he wasn’t comfortable utilizing excess and deficiency funds to compensate for labor. Such a use “sets a bad precedent,” he said. He warned against the temptation of relying on E&D funds instead of balancing the school ledgers.
Finance advisory committee chair Robert Hannemann said the committee unanimously voted not to support the article for a primary reason: “The person in our town that has an intimate knowledge of what’s going on with the school budget and the machinations that need to be done in order to keep it running — our school committee member — also voted no, and we voted to support him.”
High school Principal Sara Dingledy initially got a chilly welcome when she came to the microphone.
“You’re not a resident of the town of Chilmark? What are you doing in this hall then?” moderator Everett Poole asked.
“I’m an administrator speaking on behalf of the school,” she said.
“Yeah, but you have to have permission to speak,” Poole said.
Selectmen chair Warren Doty interceded by moving to invite Dingledy to address the special town meeting.
Dingledy spoke to the facilities portion of the article, which she described as “something that comes under her direct review.”
Three years ago when she arrived, it took time to digest facilities matters, she said, but in the past year she’s been able to “separate out three types of maintenance projects that the high school administration is committed to.” These were preventative, capital, and corrective, she said, the latter being the most problematic.
“I would say corrective maintenance is really representative of the cost of doing business in a building that [has] many pieces of equipment that are outside of their useful [lives]; issues come up, especially in the wintertime. It’s the break-and-fix model that we are looking to get ahead of, but it represents a substantial portion of our budget.”
Dingledy said the administration’s yearend “theory” was “looking to balance out books oftentimes in the facilities area, oftentimes because the corrective maintenance lines, which were sort of hidden in other budget lines, went over.”
She went on to say corrective maintenance appears chronically underfunded. She also said that the administration believes investments in preventative and capital maintenance are helping to offset corrective maintenance.
As to the fuel funding request in the article, Dingledy said it stemmed from estimating the cost based on a fuel price that was “substantially lower last year.”
“I support the high school and I support the school principal, “ Doty said. “I think she’s been doing a good job.”
Nevertheless, in the 20 years Doty said he’s reviewed fiscal budgets in Chilmark, “not once did we come to the end of the year with a deficit.”
Chilmark has reserve funds, but in his tenure they’ve never been tapped to iron out end-of-the-year budget problems, Doty said. He said despite the condition of the high school, crafting a budget that can be adhered to shouldn’t be insurmountable. He said he could not support the article.
The voters then overwhelmingly voted down the article, and did the same with the next article, a request by the school district to lease a bus. The last article, the $45 appropriation, was approved, and the special town meeting came to a close after less than 20 minutes.