The Up-Island Regional School Committee has decided not to accept any new students through school choice before discussing the issue further.
School committee members cited concerns over a lack of space for students, and saying that too much taxpayer money goes to supporting students from out of the district with school choice.
Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools Superintendent Richie Smith came before the committee on Monday evening asking whether the district wanted to participate in the program, which offers some flexibility for students to choose which district they want to attend.
“This Island affords this very unique opportunity, where most of our schools are within 10 to 15 minutes of one another, and though we have multiple school districts in our school system, we have been for many years part of the school choice program, allowing … parents and children to make a decision to seek the school that fits best with their learning,” Smith said.
The Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury school districts already opted into the program for the 2023–24 school year. Last year, the committee voted to continue school choice for the Up-Island Regional School District. According to Smith, advertising for the program begins on April 1, and the deadline for applicants is June 15. Announcements for successful candidates take place on July 15.
Committee member Skipper Manter said despite the program being a “wonderful opportunity” for students, the number of school choice students enrolled at up-Island schools concerned him.
“We collect $5,000 per student, but it certainly takes a lot more to educate them than $5,000, and that money comes out of the up-Island taxpayers,” he said, adding that there was dwindling space at Chilmark School and West Tisbury School. Manter later said it costs around $40,000 to $45,000 to educate a child in an up-Island school.
Manter underscored a need to better understand where the school choice students were coming from. “I think we take in more school choice kids than all of the other districts added together,” he said. Manter suggested placing a cap on the number of school choice students accepted at the up-Island schools, compared with the number of students that leave for another district.
Committee member Robert Lionette said he supports school choice, but he also had concerns. Lionette said he felt the committee was “under the gun” to make a decision, considering the advertising date. Additionally, he expressed concern over the financial load the program could bring to up-Island taxpayers, particularly with considerations over the West Tisbury improvement project in the future.
Smith said the number of school choice students accepted is up to the principals’ discretion, and can be limited in practice.
“We get a lot of school choice requests, usually over 30, 40 a year,” West Tisbury Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said. “We’ve been very limited in the last few years accepting school choice.”
The number of school choice students accepted had decreased annually, according to Lowell-Bettencourt. However, she said school choice was beneficial for the Island because it allows families to find a school that matches their needs, like driving distances or finding the right fit for students socially. Lowell-Bettencourt said there is no “magic number” in terms of how many students should be in a classroom; that depends on a class’s needs.
Enrollment at Island schools increased over the past two years, and is expected to grow even more in the future.
Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens mentioned that the program was also beneficial for teachers who have children in the Island school system. If a teacher can have their child in the same school they teach at, there would be no need to scramble for time during drop-offs and pickups.
Committee member Roxanne Ackerman said she was comfortable with continuing school choice, since the principals managed the program well.
After further deliberation, the committee voted to advertise for school choice for up-Island schools, but not to accept any students into the program until further discussion has taken place.