Island seeks assistance in MVRHS negotiations

External consultant could help push talks between towns toward a resolution to MVRHS funding formula disagreement.

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Superintendent Matt D'Andrea suggests hiring an external consultant to mediate discussions regarding the high school funding formula. — Lucas Thors

After hours of back and forth deliberation, the all-Island finance committee has decided to recommend hiring a professional consultant from the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS) to mediate the process of establishing a funding formula for high school capital costs.

The MARS team of consultants would meet with the superintendent and a group of stakeholders, which in this case are members of the Island school and finance committees. 

At Thursday’s all-Island finance committee meeting in the MVRHS library, superintendent Matt D’Andrea said the consultants would walk the group step-by-step through negotiations between the Island towns, which right now are at a stalemate with Oak Bluffs refusing to budge on its vote not to support a feasibility for a new school.

“They [MARS] would come with a wealth of information, they would come with background working with other districts and other regional agreements that I feel will be very beneficial,” D’Andrea said. “We are right there, and I think they would have the ability to pull us together and forward.”

But D’Andrea said it would come at a cost, and one hurdle would be finding where the funds for the consultant would come from. Hiring a MARS team would, according to D’Andrea, cost between $15,000 and $25,000. The high school does not have any funds allocated for the purpose of hiring a consultant, but D’Andrea said they could look into moving money around within the operating budget to accommodate the cost.  

Finance committee co-chair Mary Ellen Larsen said she is happy there is an alternative to solving the problem internally. “It’s good to hear we aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket,” Larsen said. 

Finance manager for the high school Mark Friedman said more than two-dozen regional school districts in the state have hired MARS for their strategic planning and consultancy services, including Berkshire Hills, Blackstone, Dennis-Yarmouth, and Southborough. Friedman said a number of those districts have similar attributes and are of similar size to the Martha’s Vineyard district.

West Tisbury finance committee member Doug Ruskin asked why the towns should “suffer through this” by themselves if MARS has successfully brought adversarial towns together in the past. “If we don’t hire a facilitator soon, we are going to go around in circles for a year,” Ruskin said. 

Oak Bluffs finance chair Bill Vrooman suggested that if Edgartown doesn’t budge at the negotiating table, the money to pay for a facilitator could be wasted and the towns could again be in “nowhereville.” He said he would like to get Edgartown’s commitment to come to the table if there is an outside mediator.

D’Andrea said the MVRHS school committee will discuss hiring a MARS consultant at their next meeting. He also said the consultants would draft a proposal outlining their job description and their expected price.

At one point, Edgartown finance committee member Leslie Baynes asked the members of the Oak Bluffs finance committee whether they would live up to their commitment to the regional agreement. Vrooman said his town has done “nothing short of living up to the agreement.”

Baynes said “five of the towns have voted to move forward with the feasibility study. Are you going to come on board?” “No,” Vrooman said. With that, all members of the Edgartown finance committee got up and walked out of the library.

D’Andrea clarified a miscommunication from prior meetings, explaining that the feasibility study vote does not have to happen before the December Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) grant deadline. School officials have floated the idea that the Island could receive up to $40 million in state aid for a $100 million high school project.

He also said each town would need to revote the feasibility study. All previous votes are void because the article did not pass in all six towns. 

“As a matter of fact, usually districts don’t have that vote done when they are first accepted into MSBA,” D’Andrea said. “Having us unified as an Island certainly is helpful, but that vote is not necessary for us to be accepted into the program.”

Chilmark finance committee member Vicki Divoll said she was under the impression that the grant funds were “hanging in the balance” and that the towns needed to rush to get the feasibility study. “Until Matt stood up tonight, this is the first I’ve heard that’s not the case,” Divoll said.