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.