Tisbury approves high school budget, but with a nonbinding request

The school's budget comes down to Aquinnah

The special town meeting and annual town meeting both took place at the Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs. — Eunki Seonwoo

Tisbury residents approved a proposed $39.27 million budget, along with the town’s $5.46 million share of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) budget, just before midnight Tuesday night at town meeting. 

But while approving the high school budget, voters also approved an amendment for a nonbinding recommendation to the MVRHS school committee against using legal funds for the ongoing athletic field lawsuit.

Tisbury’s recommendation follows a month of contentious town meetings across the Island over the proposed high school turf field.

West Tisbury and Chilmark voters decided to zero out the MVRHS budget in response to the ongoing lawsuit Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District vs. the Town of Oak Bluffs Planning Board, an ongoing case in Massachusetts Land Court filed by school officials after the planning board rejected a synthetic turf field. 

The effort was spearheaded by MVRHS committee members Skipper Manter in West Tisbury and Robert Lionette in Chilmark. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs voters passed the budget during their town meetings. 

Four out of the six Island towns need to approve the budget for it to advance. If it does not pass, the committee would need to submit a new request for all the towns approval. If a resolution is not made by July 1, the state would intervene to set a monthly budget likely based on the fiscal year 2023 budget. 

Aquinnah is the final and deciding town to take up the issue. The smallest Island town holds its town meeting on May 9.

Tisbury resident Lilian Robinson made a motion to follow the examples of West Tisbury and Chilmark Tuesday night, which was quickly seconded by former Tisbury select board member Tristan Israel. 

Speakers were not unanimous on their stances. 

A number of people made it clear they were fed up with the lawsuit. 

Ralph Friedman, who was a former school committee member, said he was “shocked and dismayed” at the field litigation. He also asked how the MVRHS committee can make a consensus with the towns on renovating or reconstructing the high school considering their conduct.

“You don’t get that way when a school committee goes to war with a member town,” he said. 

Israel said rejecting the school’s budget is a difficult choice, but voters don’t have the ability to take out specific parts of the school budget for debate, such as the legal line item that is funding the committee’s lawsuit. 

“This is, unfortunately, the vehicle that those of us who have concerns have to raise,” he said. 

Staff and administrators on Tuesday distanced themselves from the committee’s decision, pointing out that these officials were the ones who had the final vote on the budget before it goes to towns. 

MVRHS science teacher Anna Cotton said while she understands people’s frustrations toward the litigation and the dysfunction of the MVRHS committee, she said the damage that could be caused by zeroing out the budget was “so incredibly destructive.”

“I would not use the high school budget as [a] hostage and sacrifice our students, our teachers, and our entire high school over this,” she said, adding that a MVRHS committee meeting scheduled for Monday to discuss possible resolutions for the field litigation was canceled by the chair. “I am deeply disturbed,” she said. 

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools superintendent Richie Smith also pointed out the harm zeroing out the budget would have on students. He tried to dispel the public’s notion that zeroing out the budget would not have a negative impact, pointing out teacher contracts that need to be signed by June; the budget not passing means the school will need to work with last year’s budget alongside state intervention. He said this most likely means working with $500,000 less than planned for the upcoming school year. “This is wrong,” Smith said. 

“I implore you, I ask, that you please, please pass this budget,” he said. 

Tisbury resident Rachel Orr said she was uncomfortable with the budget because of how much was cut and how much money was being used for the litigation. However, she also said zeroing out the budget felt awful. “So, I guess, what are we supposed to do?” she asked.

After more comments, Tisbury school committee chair Amy Houghton said the MVRHS committee members who proposed the zeroed out high school budget on the town meeting floor were playing politics, which she said goes against the school committee members’ oaths. Houghton said she left the MVRHS committee when it was decided that the lawsuit would be taken up. 

“I will not follow the lead of my colleagues of West Tisbury or Chilmark,” she said. “The town elected me to have the best interest of our students at heart.”

Houghton came up with an amendment that appealed to many in attendance, which was a nonbinding recommendation for no more funds from the legal line be used toward the field lawsuit. 

Tisbury voters said “aye” to this change rather than zeroing out the budget. 

MVRHS principal Sara Dingledy said although the amendment was nonbinding, it sent a message to the committee and can allow the conversation to continue at the school committee level. She encouraged Islanders to come to the high school committee meetings to make their voices heard about the field litigation.

Meanwhile, voters also approved the MVRHS’ amended regional agreement and to move forward with a feasibility study for the renovation or reconstruction of the school building. The cost of the $2 million feasibility study will be shared by the Island towns and a proposition 2½ debt exclusion also needs to be approved by voters for it at the polls. Tisbury’s annual town election will be held on Tuesday, May 9, from noon to 8 pm at the Tisbury Emergency Services Facility at 215 Spring Street.

Tisbury voters also considered several zoning bylaw amendments. A notable proposed bylaw that was passed was one meant to regulate commercial timeshares, fractional and interval ownership in the town. This would limit these types of uses to Tisbury’s commercial district. An amendment that was shot down in a 186-87 vote was a proposal that would limit the number of work-related vehicles that can be at a property and capping vehicles that require a class B commercial driving license at 26,0001 lbs. Several voters, many of them small business owners, spoke out against the proposed amendments.

Voters approved a series of spending requests from the town, such as spending $80,000 to hire a professional to evaluate its municipal operations and facilities or using $60,000 toward recodifying and developing “comprehensive amendments” to Tisbury’s zoning bylaws.

Voters approved using a total of $265,244 from the embarkation fund for various projects, such as $100,000 for dredging work and $51,000 to resurface and line Water Street.

Expenditures for numerous Community Preservation Act projects were also approved by voters, such as $200,000 to complete the Owen Park bandstand reconstruction, $125,000 toward the replacing the Tisbury Town Hall roof, $40,000 toward the restoration of gravestones located in Old Village Cemetery and South End Cemetery, among others.

A $1.52 million wastewater enterprise fund budget was also approved by voters. This is to be used for the operation and maintenance of the Tisbury wastewater collection and treatment system.

Procedures outside of the warrant article also took place during the meetings. A moment of silence was held for town residents who passed away in 2022. On a more celebratory note, Tisbury town staff and select board presented a gavel to town moderator Deborah Medders to honor her final year in the position.


  1. Nice to bring some sanity back into these meetings. The amount of money in the school budget used for legal work is a rounding error in the budget. If you really want to get school finance issues in control there are better areas to look at. Why not start with administration cost and number of staff. The Manter/Lionette crowd were jumping on the band wagon about the school members and how they vote. Shame on them and there group for trying to hold school kids as pawns in their game. Instead of playing games with bills you have to pay why not dissect larger issues in the school budget before it gets to Town Meeting. Does Chilmark and West Tisbury have to have another Town meeting at tax payer expense to pay these bills?

    • The voters knew that that their vote might require another Town Meeting.
      Who should pay for Town meetings?

  2. Were we at the same town meeting last night?
    This article Is so one sided. I understand you like “FOX News” want to appease your folks and those that financially support you, but there was a lot said last night on BOTH sides of this issue. Where is that reporting?

    • Tina, what is the other side of the story?
      Can there possibly be more than one interpretation of what was said?

    • Can you elaborate in relation to the weight (numbers) of the vote and ‘Fox news’ I’m confused about this comment.

    • I was there to Tina! Wayyy past my bedtime but I’d would say that this reporting is correct.
      I’m not sure what you mean by Fox News. But I did feel like we were not divided by party lines but united as citizens of the Town Tisbury. Even though Mr.Watts did not show up or stand up or speak up for the MVRHS budget , our other two other reps did. Ms. Houghton and Ms. Cutrer we’re eloquent and spoke with integrity and empathy. Ms.Houghton even came up with a symbolic solution to the tax payer’s frustration. I hope that Mr. Watts will reflect on his commitee colleagues and be the vote that end this and brings us together .

      • Hi Rebekah,
        I am wondering if you have talked to Mr. Watts before lambasting him on this platform to see if there was a reason he did not speak at town Meeting? I can assure you, as I sat two or three rows behind him and Amy Houghton, that they were in constant communication. I also wonder if you or anyone have ever asked him why he votes the way he votes? He is a man who devotes much time to our schools. He was integral in helping along our new Tisbury School addition and volunteered to sit on the Tisbury Building Committee, all the while being on the Regional High School Committee and All Island School Committee. He has done an exemplary job fulfilling all positions. I for one thank him for his time and devotion to our schools. I believe efforts have been in play for considering settlement options and I, like you, look forward to resolutions of this quagmire.

        • Janet,
          To answer your question, I’ve had multiple conversations with Mr. Watts, my other town reps and lots of other school leaders . Mr. Watts like many others spend their precious time on Island commitees; the people who show up , run things for better or worse .
          Asking Mr.Watts to speak to his vote for unlimited funding that in turn , caused Island taxpayers to peacefully protest with their vote against the MVRHS budget, is not out of order or bullying as far as I can see.
          I thought I would ask him at our town meeting , but during the one question I did stand up to ask MVRHS admin , I was shouted at by a row of people near me, was rattled and my anxiety kept me from getting back to the mic. I hope we can all practice what we learned in kindergarten and raise our hands, be recognized and listen.

          • Hi Rebekah,
            I am happy to hear you have spoken to Mr. Watts and have asked him to answer your Why questions regarding his votes. It is very hard to listen to those who vehemently disagree. Civility can get lost when emotions run high. Its imperative we all remember why we choose to live on MV, Our community, our family, our friends, our island. As always I wish you the best.

      • Ms. ElDeiry,
        Please be mindful of the enormous amount of time that the volunteer school committee members commit, often at the expense of their own family time and personal jobs. Please stop calling individual people out if they do not specifically represent your personal opinion or goals. Such behavior is a form of bullying and is reprehensible.
        Please also verify your information and recognize that the photograph in the article to which people are commenting clearly shows that Mr. Watts was present for the meeting in its entirety despite your allegations that he did not show up. Like many other commenters have mentioned, there is more than one side to every story. I think if people could shed their personal agendas and actually listen to the facts/science, consider the needs of the students as well as fiscal responsibility, they will see that the school committee members have a very challenging job. While divided at times, they do have the health and well-being of high school students on Martha’s Vineyard as their primary objective. Perhaps, if we all act as grownups and stop politicizing the issue of the fields, recognize the desperate need for adequate sports facilities and unite in an attempt to get the job done, we could make some progress. Voting the budget to zero only costs more money- at minimum for the towns to do so, it forces a special town meeting to vote on a new budget and it absolutely impacts the high school, and the education it is able to deliver. The budget itself does not include any funding for any field projects. As for the uncapped legal expenditure- Attempts to settle the appeal with the town of Oak Bluffs have been rebuffed and meetings to discuss settlements have been canceled. Again, limiting the ability to move forward.
        Let’s work together and make some progress! We need to end this toxic environment – it serves no one and teaches our children to be adversarial rather than to be resourceful and resilient.
        Thank you

  3. What will be the cost of 6 town meetings if Aquinnah voters zero out the MVRHS budget? That is what would be required. I think the point has been made that voters are unhappy with the school committee’s vote to continue legal costs with no limit. I hope some sort of mediation can occur to resolve this situation before we all have to try and make quorums to pass the budget in the busy month of June, or be faced with budget cuts that certainly will negatively affect our students.

  4. Becka my friend, As i have always said I respect your passion, I don’t have the same pasion one way or another on turf. I am passionate about the rule of law.
    Which is to say Becka if the shoe was on the other foot and the MV commision voted down the turf field only to have the Oak Bluffs planning board totally disregard the Dover amendment and approve the turf. Would you sit quietly and accept the decision, knowing the legal system provides the vehicles to appear the decision on grounds.
    Which is to say if the Judge rules against the planning boards decision, will that be it, will you accept that.
    Or will the fight go on? We already found a new low on this island, school committee members and town voters in the face of the superintendent and the principle telling them that Zeroing the budget has a negative impact on the students education, Zero the budget anyway, caring more about winning the fight then the Students. Throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it were.
    I can think of no greater shameful thing then to willfully, with eyes wide open, Hurt our children.
    As awful as you believe turf is, Zeroing the budget and the long term effects of that are far more destructive.
    We are a country of laws, Let Mr Watts peacefully pursue his appeal through the courts, the most we lose is a tiny percent of the schools budget, which can be replaced. Let us not be an island of Car bombers and terrorists that need to make our point irregardless of who gets hurt. Because the hurt put on the children lasts a lifetime.
    Mr Manter and Mr Lionette, Your job is to put children first, you have lost your way. Your resignations are in order.

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