Oak Bluffs voters approve MVRHS funding agreement

Special town meeting’s six-article warrant fully approved.


Gathered in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center Tuesday evening, Oak Bluffs voters approved a full six-article warrant during a special town meeting. 

Above quorum, Oak Bluffs residents voted in favor, overwhelmingly, for the amended regional funding formula regarding the proposed new high school project. 

The adoption of the regional agreement allows the school building committee to get the ball rolling toward securing funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). 

An additional vote, no later than April, will be required to continue the process. 

Oak Bluffs is the first town to put the question in front of voters, with the hopes of setting a precedent for the other five towns’ approval. 

“We have an opportunity to show leadership,” select board member Brian Packish said. “We came to the table, we negotiated a savings for our community. Ultimately we need to do better, and continue to do better.”

“Part of doing better,” he said, “is getting our kids into a school [where] they can excel, grow, and support our community moving forward.” 

Superintendent Richie Smith was just one of the advocates for the approval. Under the amended agreement, Smith reminded voters, Oak Bluffs would be responsible for “under 23 percent of the cost” of the project, around 5 percent less than the former agreement. 

Packish, who represented the town in the working group charged with coming up with a funding formula that works for all six Island towns, noted the importance of securing the MSBA funds. Doing so, he explained, involves working together with all Vineyard towns.

“If there’s hope for us as an Island,” Packish said, “we ultimately need to do a lot more regional collaboration.” 

The article prompted some residents to air concerns on approving the amended agreement, specifically in moving forward without further legal consultation and review.

Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee member Sherry Countryman reasserted her belief that it would be “prudent” to seek advice from legal counsel before approval of the item. She clarified that the finance committee’s recommendation regarding the article “wasn’t in favor of approving the regional agreement; it was in favor of having town counsel review the agreement,” and reminded voters that the decision did not have to be made during Tuesday’s meeting. 

Oak Bluffs resident Peter Palches concurred with the finance committee’s recommendation to have the agreement reviewed, and posed to the select board, “Our finance committee has recommended that somebody take a closer look, and nothing’s been done?”

Select board chair Ryan Ruley said it was the board’s opinion that the agreement had been “reviewed by the department of secondary education, as well as the school attorneys,” but noted due to a conflict with the town’s attorney, they did not seek outside legal advice, as it was not financially ideal. He added that “five other towns are looking at this agreement, [Oak Bluffs] felt it was important to get this on the town floor and support it.” 

Palches questioned, “So in effect, you’re saying, ‘We thought about looking into [legal counsel], but we decided not to?’” To which Ruley replied, “Those are your words, not mine.” 

Despite an attempt by Palches to table the vote to a later date — through a motion that was seconded — few voters agreed; the warrant article was subsequently approved. 

Two articles referring to a veterans affordable housing project, initially slated for 518 County Road, were taken up, including swapping the project site for a 3.4-acre lot at 50 Belleview Ave. 

Karen James, abutter of the Belleview location, inquired about why the change of site, and questioned the number of housing units that will be created. 

Per the executive summary of the article, she said, the proposed housing development will consist of 60 to 65 units. Town moderator Jesse Law explained that the number was a typo, and the housing being considered would consist of significantly fewer units.

Town administrator Deborah Potter explained that the project set for 518 had originally called for around 60 units, and reiterated that the Belleview lot would only have 10 to 12 units. She explained the change of location was due to issues with the property’s title. 

Upon further questioning from James regarding the limit of housing units, affordable housing chair Mark Leonard confirmed that the proposed project and its associated RFP states 10 to 12, which is the maximum allowed. 

Leonard noted the clear title of the Belleview property, in addition to it being “identified for affordable housing since 1989,” by meeting the zoning requirements needed for the units, and ideal wastewater capacity.

Voters subsequently approved the swap of properties, in addition to the related warrant article concerning moving forward with the project in order to pursue requests for proposals (RFPs).

Oak Bluffs residents voted in favor of establishing a capital stabilization fund to be funded by town’s free cash with the aim of “planning for and addressing the long-term maintenance requirements of town capital assets.” The distribution of said funds would require further vote at special or annual town meetings, with a two-thirds approval.

“This is a new fund,” explained Potter, “specifically addressing capital needs.” 

Some voters asked why the fund was needed. Potter replied that the town does “a good job of getting things, [but] not as good as maintaining things … we need to start planning today for the things that we need to fix.” 

The way to do that, she emphasized, is by the creation of a fund that will allow future project funding. 

Following some pushback, voters ultimately approved the authorization of $300,000 toward conducting assessments of all town-owned buildings and their existing condition, in order to determine how best to plan and prioritize maintenance, repairs, or renovations over the next couple of decades.

Town resident Steve Auerbach asked why the town wouldn’t just create a list of things that needed to be fixed in order to avoid spending $300,000 for assessment.

“Part of what you said is exactly what I’m trying to do,” Potter said; “once we understand what the current conditions of the properties are, then we can put them into a capital plan,” which will allow the town insight as to how to prioritize future projects and associated expenditures. 

Additionally, Potter emphasized that the article approval is “an authorization to borrow,” and doesn’t necessarily mean that the full $300,000 will definitely be used. It is an estimate, she added, based on other towns that conducted similar assessments. 

“Even planning for our capital assets in a long-term projection — five, 10, 20 years — does not mean we can [abrogate] our responsibilities today, on what needs to be done.”

On the creation of both the capital stabilization fund and the $300,000 authorization, in addition to making decisions in the present and planning long-term, Potter said, “Wwe have to do both these paths simultaneously.”

The final article, recommended by the finance and advisory board and the harbormaster, referring to a transfer of $35,000 from the waterways account to go toward harbor maintenance and “the replacement of pilings, floats, and moorings,” was also swiftly approved with no objections.