We predicted this would happen. As soon as Superintendent Matt D’Andrea announced at a Thursday, Jan. 20, meeting that he was headed hat in hand to the select boards of Martha’s Vineyard looking for them to sign on to a letter of support to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), we knew who the holdout would be.
Oak Bluffs has made no secret that the town is unhappy with the current regional formula that puts much of the onus on the town for school spending because it has the largest percentage of students attending the school.
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 has a point. Our problem is that they only make this point when something is needed, and then the issue slips away, with no one in O.B. leadership pulling other Island leaders to get into a room (as easy as a Zoom room, these days) to talk about the issues. This comment from Oak Bluffs select board member Jason Balboni sums it up. “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.”
So, Jason Balboni, where is your call for an all-Island select board meeting to get the conversation going? Why didn’t you pick up the phone three years ago, after voters in Oak Bluffs rejected funding a feasibility study for the high school because of the town’s continued objections about the funding formula?
Instead, you and your fellow board members are blowing up what could be millions of dollars in state funding for a new regional high school. Is there anyone who doesn’t think this 63-year-old school is in need?
Why would the MSBA work with the Island when the Oak Bluffs letter demonstrates to them that there is a conflict between the six member towns of the regional school district? They don’t want to be in the situation they were in on the Cape, where Dennis and Yarmouth went to the MSBA to fund a middle school in 2018, and after being awarded $44 million, Yarmouth officials backed away, and the process was stymied.
And the Tisbury situation is still fresh in the minds of the state agency as well. In 2018, voters rejected a $46.6 million new school that would have seen as much as $14.6 million reimbursed by the MSBA. Instead, Tisbury is now going it alone on a $55 million project fully funded by local taxpayers.
There has been talk that the Island could receive up to 38 percent reimbursement for what’s expected to be a $100 million high school project.
Oak Bluffs select board chair Brian Packish seemed to downplay the amount, saying that once other costs for the high school project are factored in, it would be closer to 20 percent. So we can really scoff at $20 million?
Balboni and Packish aren’t alone. The entire Oak Bluffs select board is complicit. By all means, take on the funding formula, but not at the expense of leaving millions on the table.
The MSBA money is not just sitting in a bank somewhere. There are other communities willing to take that taxpayer money, which should be coming to the Island. MVRHS has applied for six years, and each time the Island has been passed over. This year all indications were that it was the Vineyard’s time, if only the member towns could show united support.
Sorry, Oak Bluffs, but writing your own letter that includes the town’s continued opposition to the funding formula isn’t helpful. You’ve likely torpedoed any possibility for the regional school district to get the funds this year. And we still don’t hear you calling other Island leaders together to talk it out.
Meanwhile, the aging school continues to have maintenance issues.
Providing a public education is foundational to a community. Providing that education in an environment that is conducive to education is also an important role of the community.
Failing to come up with a cohesive message threatens to stall this important step.
We can and should do better.