Oak Bluffs won’t revisit failed vote

Town objects to funding formula for MVRHS.

Two MVRHS boys soccer players were suspended after an altercation with an official. - Gabrielle Mannino

Could be some fun tonight. Last night, depending on your perspective, the town of Oak Bluffs either held its ground or kicked the can down the road on funding for a new high school.

Either way, the Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee was expected to tell the All-Island Finance Committee at 6 pm that they will not recommend asking town meeting voters to reconsider funding the feasibility study for a new or renovated Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Oak Bluffs was the only town to reject the article at town meeting in April.

By a 6-0 vote Tuesday night, the board also voted not to submit three options that work for Oak Bluffs for an Islandwide property tax funding formula, also requested of them last week by the All-Island committee, and provided the reasons behind their decision on Tuesday.

The 90-minute Tuesday Oak Bluffs session included six members of the finance committee and several former (nonvoting) members, Kris O’Brien, a member of both the Oak Bluffs and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School school committees, and Oak Bluffs selectmen Gail Barmakian, Brian Packish, and Mike Santoro, as well as town administrator Robert Whritenour.

The long-running effort to shore up or replace the 70-year-old Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has been stalled for years over how much each town should pay for upkeep. The latest iteration is how to tax residents to pay a potential $100 million bill for the school.

Revenue is raised to support the high school on an enrollment formulation that towns like Oak Bluffs and Tisbury argue is unfair to them. They contend that Edgartown and Chilmark, with higher property values, are not paying their fair share.

The example offered by Peter Plaches, former board member, was, “If you live in a $1 million home in Oak Bluffs with 10 kids in K-8, you pay the same as a family in a $1 million house in Chilmark with no kids. When they get to high school, it changes. Chilmark would have to pay seven times more than they do for K-8,” he said, indicating that the high school cost levy is based on percentage of town children in the high school population, 28 percent in the case of Oak Bluffs.

There are long-running memories of intratown feuds, and differing stances on the logic and equity in the current formula system, and all were on display Tuesday night, though town administrator Whritenour and finance and advisory member Mike Taus were particularly focused on shepherding the wide-ranging discussion back to the core question: What do we do tonight?

The All-Island Finance Committee had requested both actions be approved to find out what will fly in Oak Bluffs. Several finance and advisory board members were supported by selectman Gail Barmakian, who argued that the town’s only leverage was a ticking-clock strategy, that up to $40 million in state contributions could be lost if a funding agreement can’t be reached by the six towns.

Town officials described their current and projected 28 percent share of high school costs as “unsustainable,” a term used particularly in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury to describe their dilemma.

After the meeting Tuesday, The Times asked finance committee chairman John Vrooman what long-term unsustainability would mean for Oak Bluffs.

”It’s unsustainable long-term, because we would be forcing our skilled labor force off-Island, to be replaced by people taking the ferry over every day. Or it could mean giving up services to the community,” Vrooman said. “Maybe not being able to afford our own police or fire departments, perhaps merging with other towns.” 

Without a change in formula, Oak Bluffs will continue to see its portion of the high school budget rise. “If you put the high school capital project on top, that really buries us,” he said. “Really, there’s no win-win here, but If it bankrupts us, it won’t help.”

Several speakers said that the Dennis-Yarmouth regional district recently had the same problem. “They were at loggerheads, but somehow they figured it out. I think the richer town paid more, but I’m not sure,” Vrooman said to the sound of pens around the room taking notes.

The meeting produced some interesting public outreach strategies, and a delicious “what if” in which the Island towns would seek legislative approval to give taxing power to the school superintendent. Asked about the idea after the meeting, Vrooman gave faint praise, saying, “It’s not something that has been widely discussed.”