Chilmark scoffs at O.B. pupil formulas

Shipping students to Deerfield or Philips Exeter is more economical, officials say.

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Chilmark finance advisory committee member Vicki Divoll and chairman Rob Hannemann at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting. — Rich Saltzberg

Chilmark finance advisory committee chairman Rob Hannemann and committee member Vicki Divoll told Chilmark selectmen Tuesday night their counterparts in Oak Bluffs are unwilling to support a feasibility study key to accessing $40 million in state aid for a new high school unless Chilmark commits to revised school funding formulas. Hannemann went so far as to say the costs per pupil in some of the formulas Oak Bluffs was touting were so exorbitant, sending Chilmark’s students to private schools looked more cost-effective. 

Selectman Jim Malkin said the present cost per pupil for each town is $29,500. However, under an equivalency formula put forth, Chilmark would pay $144,598, under a half equivalence and half enrollment formula, the figure would be $93,577 per Chilmark student, and using a per-pupil equivalent on capital formula, $75,000 per Chilmark student. By comparison, Malkin said tuition is $55,000 per year at Phillips Exeter Academy, and $32,000 at Cape Cod Academy. 

“I find it hard to believe that our sister towns would think that the voters of Chilmark would agree to paying that kind of money on a per-pupil basis,” Malkin said.

“As it turns out,” Hammeman said, “Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has a 50 percent lower student-teacher ratio than the average in the state. So we have low student-teacher ratio, high dollars, but oh by the way, mediocre test results. So we certainly should not end up paying $100,000 per student for mediocre results.”

Though he questioned the legality of it, Hannemann said, “The right solution for Chilmark might be just [to] do a deal with one or more of the private schools, and send some of our kids to Deerfield Academy, because that would save us money.” 

Hannemann later walked that back, and said he was not actually advocating for Chilmark kids to go to private schools. 

Divoll described the all-Island finance committee meetings as informal, unchaired, and randomly attended.

“The question has been asked at all the meetings, including by me several times, what is unfair and improper about the formula that we’ve been living under?” Divoll said. “And that question has never been answered … It’s pretty much pushed aside as a given that the problem exists.” 

Divoll said at the last all-Island finance committee meeting, the focus was on Oak Bluffs’ rejection of the feasibility study for the high school and funding the high school: “The high school representatives have made a point over and over again that we are at risk of losing $40 million from the state that would go to our new high school if we don’t do the feasibility study by December. Everybody’s hair was on fire at the end of the last meeting about that.”

Divoll said pressure built for the five towns that supported the feasibility study to hold special town meetings in an effort to take up Oak Bluffs’ slack and fund the feasibility study themselves.

“And then everybody turned on Oak Bluffs and said why should five towns who voted for the feasibility study under the existing formula go back … and change that?”

The suggestion was made that Oak Bluffs should hold a special town meeting and vote to approve the feasibility study under the current formula. Oak Bluffs showed some interest in that, she said.

“However, the caveat was we [Oak Bluffs] won’t do that unless we get a good faith commitment … from the boards of selectmen from the other five towns that they will move forward after the feasibility study to redo the formula for everyone.”

“They want us to commit to a substantial change?” selectman Bill Rossi asked.

“Correct,” Divoll said.

Rossi said the “basic danger” was losing state funding.

“Maybe Oak Bluffs doesn’t want a new [high] school,” he added.

Selectman Jim Malkin was critical of superintendent Matt D’Andrea weighing in on how money was garnered from the towns. 

“The superintendent has said we have to change the formula because the current building is a problem,” he said. “Well, if the current building is a problem, tell us what exactly the serious safety issues are, and put them in the budget. We’re starting on the wrong thing — fix the safety issues. Don’t wait to change the formula. To me it’s disingenuous to proceed that way.”

“I look at the enrollment numbers for the high school,” chairman Warren Doty said, “Aquinnah has 12 students, Chilmark has 30 students, Edgartown 174, Oak Bluffs 178, Tisbury 181, West Tisbury 84. We are a minor, minor part of this program.”

Hannemann noted a particular meeting he attended involved discussion of tax rates. “Yes, we have a low tax rate, because we’re a well-managed and rural town,” he said of Chilmark. “But it isn’t that that’s offset by the high property values. It turns out that if you compare single-family tax bills each year, for Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, and Edgartown, they’re all within $100 of each other.”

Despite this, Hannemann said others pointed out Chilmark had a lot of land. Hannemann said he responded by saying that many Chilmark residents are living with “limited income,” and have had land in their family for generations. “They may look land-rich, but it’s very difficult to pay a tax bill with dirt,” he said.

Malkin said Oak Bluffs, the “driving force” behind the quest for formula recalibration, has different demographics from Chilmark, and “considerably more students.” 

Malkin took also took issue with what he perceived as Oak Bluffs portraying Chilmark as an underused resource because it’s a town full of valuable land that enjoys a low tax rate. 

“We all live with things that happened in the past,” he said. He noted Chilmark made choices like “three-acre zoning, such as not having a commercial district, such as maintaining … our rural character.”  He said these decisions “haven’t placed a tremendous burden on the town for town services. Whereas other towns that have a lot of commercial activity, services such as water, considerably larger fire and police departments, considerably larger populations, have a larger demand for town services that get built into their budget — that costs money.”

Malkin also took issue with the suggestion that Oak Bluffs is burdened with nontaxable land at the high school, YMCA, skating rink, and Community Services, among other places, and should therefore pay less. Malkin said other towns harbor nonprofits that own real estate. 

Hannemann said Chilmark and Edgartown are being falsely stigmatized as the municipalities that don’t want to collaborate. 

“We’re open to suggestions about formulas, and we’d like to consider them,” Doty said, “but we’re not making a commitment to anything. I would just make one personal comment. I think it’s very unfortunate for us to ever talk about sending our kids to high school anywhere else. You know, this is our high school. We support it. We want Chilmark kids to go to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. I know many families send their kids to Falmouth Academy, but I think it’s our high school. We want to be in it.”

The selectmen took no action on the subject beyond deliberation.

  • Nice propaganda piece. Great way to stir up the negative. Now, Focus on the important piece. How about revising the funding formula for capital investments. You as a community do not utilize only 4% of the building. That would mean you only can send 4 people out of every 100 to the PAC. Oh my the uproar if townsfolk from Chilmark could only use the building based upon that equation. Imagine if the quotas on sports teams had to follow the formula. Sorry Johnny. Only 1 kid from Chilmark on the football field because your town only funds 4%. Yes. You could lose that chance at state money. Come to the table for capital projects and you might find traction. This method from Edgartown and now Chilmark of dumping on OB is kind funny if people pay attention. Fear baiting and attempted shame. Really awesome tactics. Which town is next in line for this show.

  • Perhaps Chilmark should leave the district and build their own high school. I’m sure the costs of building a new school, offering and staffing both college prep and vocational courses, administration, custodians, sports coaches, guidance counselors et all would be a bargain. They’ve had such an easy job of siting the new fire station I’m thinking a new school would be a no brainer.

  • Total Budget for the High School divided by the number of students sent from each town each year is a fair way of paying for the school. Oak Bluffs just wants to lower their costs at the expense of the other towns. How about Oak Bluffs shares the money they make from hospital transport with the rest of the Island.

  • We should also be aware that $30,000/student is absurd when you look at the school’s results. Something is very wrong with the cost of education at Island Schools when compared to results from other communities in Massachusetts that aren’t paying half the cost per student.

  • The increase in administrative positions in schools, particularly universities is around 20% nationwide. That trend far exceeds the increase in student population. Axiom – follow the money.

  • The issue is capital projects. Why shouldn’t each of the towns pay equal amounts for capital projects, like building a new school? If the roof fails, it isn’t going to determine what town the student is from if they are injured. Also, who is to say in the 50-75 year life span of a school the per student ratio isn’t going to change over it’s lifetime. That is what OB and Tisbury is looking for, equal money spent on capital projects, that is why OB voted down the warrant article. The regional formula lays the majority of the burden on two towns when students from every town benefit from the building. Should Chilmark students only be allowed to use 15% of the building based on the funding formula, NO, they are allowed to use the entire building. The day to day operations is another issue all together. I believe the leaders and voters in Chilmark, Aq, WT, and Edg know this but they have a 65 year old formula that works for them….It is 2019, time to keep up with the times, yeah, it’s only the kids of the Island who are suffering because of the refusal of the town leaders to compromise, just ask Tisbury. Come on people, make it happen.

  • We should be critical of D’Andrea and his misguided judgements on school budget and finance structures. I just see that it has been 4-5 years, and now everything that D’Andrea has been in charge of is falling apart. Maybe it is time not for a new structure for budgets and spening, but a new Superintendent of Schools. Sorry Matt, this ain’t working anymore.

  • The Vineyard homegrown kids will grow up simply fine. Please remain calm. Our educators and school committee members care so much, their emotions tend to run a little too high. I have trust everything will work out. So, what to do if they can’t? In about 20-years ask the Coast Guard to mandate pot dispensaries placed on-board Hy-Line Cruises to prep the tourists. They’ll need a couple of hits before they hit land-ho MV. The benefits of higher education.

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