New regional agreement is needed

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To the Editor:

The six towns of Martha’s Vineyard have been meeting to discuss the current regional agreement and the apportionment formula for each town’s contribution toward the operational and capital costs of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Frustrated Oak Bluffs voters denied approval of the funding of a feasibility study to determine how to address capital improvements to the school until the regional agreement itself was addressed. The finance committees of the towns (well, most towns) have met several times to discuss formulas. Theories, assertions, and staged walkouts have occurred. Emotions run high when discussing this issue. The problem is, it’s just not that simple.

I am a recently appointed member of the Oak Bluffs finance committee and advisory board, although I do not speak for the committee. I have done a lot of research and number-crunching regarding apportioning these costs. What I have determined is that this topic is incredibly complex, and relevant expertise is needed to solve it in any viable or long-term way. Not a very satisfying answer, I know. Let’s look at some facts, which have been distorted to suit the arguments of differing factions in this debate.

The current regional agreement was drafted in 1956, and the formula has been amended four times, most recently in 1994. Laws relating to regional agreements have substantially changed since 1956, including a substantial amendment in 1974 and by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993. Yet the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Agreement has stayed the same. The towns have been unable, since 2008, to agree upon an apportionment formula, and therefore, I am told, the state’s “statutory formula” based on “enrollment” has been the default formula. The “statutory formula” is a method of determining a “base contribution” toward the school budget, based on a town’s ability to pay and other factors determined by the commissioner of education. It is used to determine the state’s contribution to a minimum level of education, not a member town’s contribution in a regional agreement. I see nowhere where it says anything other than apportionment of amounts in the budget in excess of the minimum contribution shall be made in accordance with the regional agreement. So, I’m wondering where we got to where we are, at least in terms of the law.

Let’s address the “We have 28 students, why should we pay more than 28/650 of the school budget? We go from paying $30,000 to $144,000 per student!”— and the apportionment of cost based on enrollment theory. Regionalization’s purpose is to provide better and more efficient services for students than if a town had to provide them on their own. If a town had only 28 students, that would give them about $840,000 per year (28 x $30K). They would be unable or unwilling to build a separate high school building, track and field, hire a Spanish teacher, a music teacher, and so on, for those few students. Our predecessors in 1956 agreed to look at the Island’s children on a regional basis — not as children from a particular town but as children from the Island where we were all responsible for their secondary education. In this way, children from the least populated towns would be able to enjoy the same level of services as those from more populated towns. They would all have the same opportunities, regardless of how large their town was or how many students they send to the school. If a town opts in to regionalization, the benefits and efficiencies are many, but the costs are also considerable — for all towns in the region. In addition, the high school is a community building open for much longer hours than the school day, used for meetings, concerts, events, and so on. All communities on the Island benefit from the high school facilities. To apportion costs by student (based on an Oct. 1 enrollment on an Island where people are moving continuously) is as arbitrary a method as any other.

Let’s discuss the numbers, because without understanding them we have no idea what we are arguing about. There are eight different proposed formulas being reviewed by the All-Island Finance Committee. They move the school allocation for the 2019 budget between approximately $750,000 to $2.5 million from three towns to three other towns. Taking the three most popular formulas, a homeowner of a $750,000 home in any of the three towns whose tax would increase would have to pay, at most, approximately $257 per year more in taxes. Chilmark, with the lowest tax rate in the state, could increase its tax rate from $2.75 to $3.09 to cover the difference in its worst-case scenario. This is still $6.36 less than the current tax rate in Tisbury. Edgartown’s tax rate is $3.87, with property values of over $8 billion. It could cover its worst-case tax increase by moving its rate 16 cents, to $4.03. This is a far cry from Oak Bluffs’ tax rate of $7.83 on only $3 billion of value, and Massachusetts’ median 2019 tax rate of $15.48. Edgartown collects approximately 30 percent of all tax revenues on the Island, while Oak Bluffs collects 20 percent, and yet Edgartown pays 26 percent of the school budget, while Oak Bluffs pays 27 percent. Chilmark collects 8.5 percent of all Island revenues, and pays only 4 percent of the budget. Eighteen percent of Oak Bluffs’ tax revenues go toward its high school allotment, while only 11 percent of Edgartown’s revenues and 6.6 percent of Chilmark’s revenues do so. I could compare many other numbers and facts, and they may or may not ring true, depending on the audience.

Regionalization is complicated. Particularly in a region with disparate incomes, tax rates, property values, and populations, the factors most important in determining contributions to the education of our Island youth are complex matters. Lost land value, increased services, costs of other shared services and so forth muddy the waters even more. Overlay on top of that federal, state, and local laws, and your head starts to spin. What I do know is that a group of well-meaning people trying to figure this out on a volunteer basis don’t have the expertise to determine what is fair. We may want to have the answers, or think we have the answers, but we don’t. There are experts who do this for a living. They understand the laws and common practice, the interplay between them, grants and other sources available to allay the costs, and what has worked in other complicated regions. Sixty-three years is too long to be living with an agreement that was put together when the Island was a very different place. We need to come together to develop a new agreement that works for all, because we are one Island, each piece needed to sustain us all.

Sherry Countryman
Oak Bluffs