Officials lean toward hybrid MVRHS funding formula

All-out per-pupil and total equalized value options are off the table for new school build. 

The MVRHS capital funding formula working group is leaning toward suggesting a hybrid formula to pay for a new or rebuilt school. — Lucas Thors

Updated April 29 at 5:45 pm

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) funding formula working group is leaning toward a hybrid formula to rebuild or replace the aging high school building. 

MVRHS is in need of a new or updated school facility, as maintenance of the building has fallen through the cracks over the years due to annual contributions to other post employment benefits, as well as other budgetary obligations. 

At Thursday’s working group meeting, which is made up of town administrators and one select board member from each town, members determined that as of now the most palatable cost sharing formula is based on 25 percent equalized valuation (EQV) and 75 percent enrollment. The current cost-sharing formula is based on 100 percent enrollment, and deals with capital project costs that the school must apportion to Island towns.

Based on existing projections, the total capital cost of a new or fully rebuilt school will fall around $105 million, with the assumption that the high school will only have to pay $65 million and the remainder will be covered by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Core building program. The school was accepted into the MSBA’s eligibility period in March, with the stipulation that all Island towns would come to a consensus on a funding formula for the feasibility study and the project. A feasibility study is required to determine the extent of a capital project, and whether the school will need to be rebuilt, fixed and modified, or constructed anew. 

West Tisbury select board member Cynthia Mitchell laid out some figures related to median income in cities and towns across Massachusetts. She said the population in Island towns increased by almost 20 percent from 2010 to 2020, citing the COVID wash-ashore effect as a potential contributing factor. “Many of those COVID wash-ashore people may have contributed to raising the median income in the towns, in many cases,” Mitchell said.

Edgartown select board member Art Smadbeck said the anticipated contribution of the MSBA is potentially misleading compared with what they might actually pay for, stressing that the approximated 39 percent contribution doesn’t account for the entire project, only certain elements, and there are caps for how much the authority can contribute per square foot. 

“Realistically speaking, with the kind of building costs we have here, if we got 25 percent of our whole project covered, that would be pretty good,” Smadbeck said. “You have a number; if you don’t live within that number, everything goes out the window.” He said that if the towns are to agree on any formula, the information will have to be presented in a plain, easy-to-digest format. “This is what we are going to have to bond, this is what we are going to have to pay every year — I think that’s really all people want to know,” he said.

West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand said the conversation of what number is palatable and what number is unpalatable to taxpayers is a separate issue from the formula itself. She said once a formula is established, the job of the towns will be to make it clear to the high school building committee what threshold taxpayers are comfortable with. 

“If this means that you have to scale back pieces of the project so that under no circumstances does the project come in over that $100 million, then that is the message that gets sent, but it seems to me this committee’s job is apportionment,” Rand said. 

Chilmark select board chair James Malkin boiled down the problem to some towns wanting to pay less than they are in the current formula, and some towns not wanting to pay more than the current formula. “And then we have to come up with something that all six towns will agree to. I think going the 100 percent EQV route is going to have a hard, almost impossible time getting passed in Chilmark,” Malkin said. 

Smadbeck agreed with Malkin’s point, and said that any flat rate percentage skews the costs untenably to the smallest Island towns. If a flat rate was established for the larger towns individually, and each of the down-Island towns were combined into one unit, he said, that would recognize the diverse nature of the two Vineyard regions, and their needs and restrictions.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said the goal as he sees it is to take some of the financial pressure off Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, and put some of that on Edgartown and Chilmark. “I think that 25 percent EQV and 75 percent enrollment option is a good middle of the road,” D’Andrea said. 

During the meeting, the larger discussion of the MVRHS budget apportionment was brought up, but Tisbury select board chair Jeff Kristal clarified that the conversation now is only related to the funding formula for the feasibility study and the building project itself. 

Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll wondered if it would be best to fix the debt service to whatever enrollment numbers and EQV are at the time of making an agreement, or establish a five-year rolling debt service that includes updated figures. In Massachusetts, EQV is evaluated every two years, and enrollment at the high school is measured each year during the budget planning process. 

Oak Bluffs select board member Brian Packish said he is just as concerned about the total number for his town as he is about the potential for fluctuations in parsed-out costs. “Just to wake up in the morning and find out where the number falls. I think Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven, that is probably one place where we are most aligned in this conversation,” Packish said. “As we look at our growth, how does that affect this process going forward?”

Mitchell said there is value to keeping the per-pupil cost essentially the same for each town, to which Rand responded that under the existing formula, all towns are paying essentially the same per-pupil cost, but when looking at the formula based entirely on EQV, Oak Bluffs’ cost per student jumps to about $55,000 per year, and Chilmark’s cost per student leaps to $320,000. “That’s basically the cost of a Harvard education for each child every year,” Rand said. 

Malkin said that if the up-Island towns can agree on the 25 percent EQV and 75 percent enrollment formula, they will also have to discuss some kind of subagreement that divides up-Island’s approximate 25 percent of the overall cost into three parts. He wondered if it would make sense to base the breakdown on an agreement similar to the one the up-Island towns created to share Tri-Town Ambulance services in as equitable a way as possible. 

The working group plans to meet again on Wednesday, May 4, at 6 pm.

Updated to clarify current cost sharing formula. —Ed.