The Oak Bluffs select board decided to write its own letter to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), agreeing that a new high school is needed on the Island, but voicing concerns about the regional funding formula.
It comes as the school district won unequivocal support of three towns — Edgartown, Chilmark, and Aquinnah — and was scheduled to meet with Tisbury and West Tisbury as The Times went to press Wednesday.
The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee has applied to MSBA in each of the past six years looking for support to replace the 63-year-old high school. MSBA is a state organization that provides school districts with funding to renovate or build new schools.
The school committee created a letter last week after receiving an indication that the Island high school could be on the state’s short list for funding.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea is making the rounds to Island towns to support the letter.
He told the board that representatives of the MSBA reached out to him and asked for a letter expressing that each town is ready to make a good-faith effort toward a high school building project, and signed by a representative of each of the Island’s six towns.
“They asked that because they recognize that we have a need at our high school for a building project, however they are concerned about the disagreement that has been expressed from some of the towns about the funding formula that we use to fund the high school,” D’Andrea told the Edgartown select board on Monday.
Reached Wednesday morning, after Oak Bluffs’ decision to send the separate letter, D’Andrea said he still intends to send Oak Bluffs letter with his letter, and is hoping for the best, but fears how MSBA will perceive separate letters.
“The intent of the letter was to show that we were unified in supporting a building project,” he said. “I believe the separate letters will be perceived that we are still divided, and won’t be helpful in getting the support we need from MSBA.”
D’Andrea added that the towns have always funded the high school, and recognize the need for a building project, and that while the school district does not decide how the towns are assessed, he would help in any way he could to help facilitate an agreement with the towns.
“It is a decision the towns need to make together,” he said. “I stand ready to support the towns in any way to come to a resolution.”
The Edgartown select board unanimously agreed to sign a letter to support the good-faith effort for a building project. Chilmark and Aquinnah have also expressed support as of Tuesday afternoon.
Oak Bluffs board members were in agreement that a new school should be built, but didn’t think the current funding formula worked for the town.
The high school’s budget formulas are based on each town’s student enrollment from October of the preceding year. This formula places the lion’s share of funding on the three down-Island towns, and often Oak Bluffs. The current FY23 funding formula apportions 28.3 percent of the budget to Oak Bluffs, 26.9 percent to Tisbury, 23.5 percent to Edgartown, 14.3 percent to West Tisbury, 5 percent to Chilmark, and 2 percent to Aquinnah.
Oak Bluffs leaders have repeatedly expressed criticism with the regional funding formula, such as when Oak Bluffs voters denied a feasibility study for the high school at town meeting in 2019.
The letter is not a commitment to a building project, but a commitment to the process, a feasibility study, and to come up with a project fit for the Island.
If the school is accepted by MSBA, the school could receive tens of millions of dollars in potential grant funding for a new school.
Principal assessor MacGregor Anderson gave a short slideshow during the Zoom meeting to show how a capital project at the high school would impact taxpayers who own similarly valued homes in each town with the current funding formulas, versus a formula allocated by tax base.
For his example, Anderson used a $100 million expenditure for the high school, and its impact on a town-by-town basis per $100,000 in assessed value on a property assessed at $1 million. He did not include financing or residential exemptions.
Oak Bluffs currently has the highest enrollment rate of the high school, with 200 students. Tisbury is second, with 190 students. Conversely, in FY22, Edgartown’s tax base is the highest on the Island, with a $10.6 billion valuation. Oak Bluffs is a far second, with a $4.2 billion valuation.
Using a taxpayer with a $1 million home in each town, a $100 million project, and using the current funding formula, Anderson estimated that the tax burden would be $7,874 for Tisbury, $6,722 for Oak Bluffs, $4,524 for West Tisbury, $2,311 for Aquinnah, $2,217 for Edgartown, and $1,344 for Chilmark.
Allocations by tax base would even out contributions for each town to $3,854, based on Anderson’s calculations.
Anderson also included a slide about what would result if the MSBA contributed 38 percent of the cost for a $100 million high school. Select board chair Brian Packish said the MSBA contribution would be 38 percent of approved costs and square footage of up to $360 per square foot.
“It’ll probably be a much lower percentage of total project cost,” Packish said.
Packish added that the funding formula is like people in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs paying more for a ferry ticket than someone in Aquinnah and Chilmark, even though they are riding the same ferry. “When you net it out, I think it’s very easy to understand why folks in various towns, particularly in Oak Bluffs, have said it’s not a cross we can continue to bear,” he said.
Select board member Jason Balboni said the town has repeatedly expressed concern about the funding formula. “We’ve been talking about this funding formula for a long time, and it really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and now we’re feeling pressure to just sign the paper and not worry about the funding formula,” Balboni said. “We know the condition of the high school, we know the project needs to be done. I support that, but unfortunately I can’t sign a letter that says I’m going to work in good faith when I know this formula doesn’t work.”
Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said he agreed with the town, and that all Island towns need to come together. “This must be addressed equitably by each town for the good of the Island as a whole,” he said. “The schools inherently face challenges as a result of the town’s separate interests … I don’t see O.B. as the roadblock. I see all of us, all of the towns working together, that’s the roadblock.”
Select board member Ryan Ruley said a discussion on the regional funding formula was especially important as Oak Bluffs is beginning work on several affordable housing projects, and the Coalition to Create the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank looks to establish a housing bank on the Island: “We also know that’s going to come with an increase in students. Now we have another group coming to us looking to change legislation,” he said. “Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are going to be two of the main towns targeted where that money is going to be spent, because of the density and the zoning.”
Balboni said he supported the town writing its own letter even though it was not what the superintendent requested. “I’m just not sure that it’s wanted,” he said. “As the superintendent mentioned earlier, [MSBA’s] concern was the funding formula and the ability of the towns to get together. I don’t know if a letter saying, ‘We will do that, but your concerns are true,’ is the letter to write.”
Packish said writing a letter was better than not writing a letter.
The board voted unanimously to have Packish work with town administrator Deb Potter on a letter.
Missing out on the funding would be an echo of the Tisbury School project in 2018, which voters denied in a close 567-546 vote. The 2018 project was eligible to receive $14.6 million in MSBA funding, leaving taxpayers responsible for $32 million. In 2021, Tisbury voted 821-224 to build a $55 million school with no state funding.
Edgartown select board member Art Smadbeck said this was a great opportunity for the Island. “I think that moving forward is really in all of our best interests,” Smadbeck said.
Select board chair Michael Donaroma agreed. “It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t miss out on,” Donaroma said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Chilmark joined Edgartown in unanimously supporting the MSBA letter. Select board chair James Malkin said after the meeting that the board “hopes the process works,” and the high school gets the funding it needs.
Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison told the Times his town’s select board will not be having a meeting about the MSBA, but a letter of support will be sent.
According to state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, he spoke with the MSBA recently, and they told him MVRHS has a “very good chance” of receiving funding, but not if the six towns can’t work together to reach an agreement.
“For these sorts of projects, all the municipalities within the school district need to show their support,” Cyr said. “It appears that the Island is going to squander its opportunity for state funding for this project unless the six Island towns can come to an agreement.” He stressed that he isn’t trying to tell the towns what to do, but is simply conveying information from the MSBA. He added that to his understanding, the level of potential subsidy available to the school would be 38 percent of building costs if it is accepted into the program.
Last week, D’Andrea expressed concern about a similar situation that happened at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District on Cape Cod. In 2018, Dennis-Yarmouth was awarded a $44 million grant from the MSBA for a new middle school, but when it got down to starting the project, Yarmouth officials backed away, and the process was stymied.
Reporters Lucas Thors and Eunki Seonwoo contributed to this story.