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.