Members of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee say they’re hoping for a resolution in the ongoing turf field legal battle, although little information has been provided on what that could mean.
More than 100 people attended Monday’s MVRHS committee meeting, hoping for some clarity on the status of the committee’s appeal in land court, and the costs associated with it.
The committee, after more than an hour in executive session, tasked its attorney to meet with representatives of the town of Oak Bluffs to discuss a possible resolution over a lawsuit on a turf field.
“The school committee has resolved and directed our attorney to engage in discussions with the attorney for Oak Bluffs and the Oak Bluffs planning board, for the purposes of resolving the pending field [litigation],” MVRHS committee chairman Robert Lionette said in a statement.
There was no formal vote from the committee, but the decision comes as Aquinnah gears up for its annual town meeting, where voters will be asked to approve the high school’s budget.
At their town meetings in April, voters in both West Tisbury and Chilmark protested the litigation by rejecting the school budget request for the upcoming fiscal year. Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Tisbury have approved the budget, but that leaves Aquinnah as the deciding town. If four towns don’t approve the budget, the high school will be level-funded until an agreement is reached.
The quorum at Aquinnah’s annual is 40 residents.
Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District vs. the town of Oak Bluffs Planning Board is an ongoing case in Massachusetts Land Court, which was filed by school officials after the planning board rejected a proposal to install a synthetic turf field. Board members cited concerns over per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
As of Monday, the case is pending summary judgment, and legal representatives are awaiting a hearing date, school committee counsel Brian Winner said.
Generally, summary judgment “has the potential to dispose of a case, or significant portions of the case, rendering it essentially resolved,” he said. “But we have no control over what the court does.”
Winner also noted that if the presiding land court judge rules in favor of the high school, the Oak Bluffs planning board would have the option to appeal.
“We’re here because nobody at this table cares more about kids and the school than anybody else at this table,” high school committee chair Robert Lionette said Monday, before entering into executive session to discuss litigation strategy. Committee member Skip Manter didn’t think the committee should go into executive session for the discussion.
“I think the public would be much better served if they were to hear what we’re talking about,” he said. “[Voters in] Aquinnah would be able to judge more accordingly, next Tuesday.”
Upon reconvening in open session over an hour later, Lionette shared a statement on behalf of the committee that they would try to seek a resolution with Oak Bluffs.
He said there still remains “housekeeping” on the part of the school committee, and that the group plans on making decisions as a whole, rather than the two-person subcommittee that’s been more involved with the litigation process.
“Given the timing and where we are with this, I would like to recommend that any contact with our attorney, any authorization, be directed by the [entire] committee,” Lionette said.
“In the spirit of trying to create some transparency and accountability, this would be very helpful,” he added.
The suggestion was informally agreed upon, although no motion was made.
During public comment, West Tisbury resident Doug Ruskin asked the committee whether they’ve decided “to reinvoke the cap on spending” for the court appeal, or if the spending would remain “unfettered.”
“Uncapped is different than unfettered,” committee member Michael Watts replied. “We’re not idiots. Uncapped means it’s not capped. Unfettered means you can just go do whatever the hell you want. This committee has no intention of doing that.”
Watts referred back to Lionette’s statement made after the executive session, which, he said, “looks like we’re trying to find an end.”
Chilmark finance advisory committee member Vicki Divoll expressed that the way in which the committee decided to continue litigation, in a split vote of 5-4, “feels uncapped, it feels unfettered, it feels uncontrolled, it feels unaccountable to the people of the towns.”
“This is very frustrating for me,” said Oak Bluffs resident Richard Toole. “I’m paying legal fees on both sides of this issue. It’s just ridiculous.”
He implored the committee to “come to [their] senses.”
“You’re damaging your chances of getting your high school renovation project approved by continuing with this silly litigation,” he said.
Additionally, “there’s nothing more important than our drinking water,” he said. “I applaud the Oak Bluffs planning board for sticking their necks out … They had the nerve to do the right thing.”
Including legal fees for its land court appeals, the school committee has spent around $521,000 on field-related initiatives. This includes funding project design of the field and its proposed accompanying track, along with consultants brought in when the project was under review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission nearly two years ago. The MVC ultimately voted to approve the field project in a 10-6 vote.
The MVRHS committee plans to convene again in executive session before Aquinnah holds its annual town meeting on May 9. The time and date of that meeting is to be determined. If Aquinnah voters reject the high school budget, it would be the third Island town to do so, rendering the upcoming fiscal year’s school budget void, per the Island’s regional agreement.
In the event that Aquinnah follows West Tisbury and Chilmark, the school would revert to the previous year’s budget, and it would be required that the school committee revise the requested attribution. That would also require towns to hold special town meetings over the summer to approve an amended budget.
Robert Lionette is quoted as saying “We’re here because nobody at this table cares more about kids and the school than anybody else at this table”. However, at the table sits Mr. Manter, and Mr. Lionette, who have lead their towns to DEFUND the MVRHS budget which in essence, hurts kids and the school. Using the school budget as hostage to get what you want is in deed hurting kids, and a new low for our island community. I would suggest some at the table care more than others about kids.
Follow the money.
As someone who has been engaged in this issue since the beginning I need to once again refute the accusation that those of us against the artificial turf don’t care about our island kids. The truth is we care deeply…about all of them. It’s because of health concerns and data we are fighting this issue. We are safeguarding their immediate and long term health as well as their water and environment.
Susan, As someone who has been outspoken against the artificial turf since the beginning can you answer a couple questions for me. What is your solution for the young women who want to play Field hockey and the unified athletic teams needs for a synthetic field? You will gain a lot of respect for your anti plastics movement if you had a legitimate solution to these issues.
we live in a fishbowl literally. everything that happens here affects us all today and for generations to come. why should we play russian roulette with our ecosystem? cigarettes weren’t supposed to be harmful either. The school board opting for an endless lawsuit wasting what may amount to millions in attorney fees has hurt the students more than anyone else. As the perverse evidence of PFAS and other micro plastics becomes more commonplace who are we going to hold responsible? if we trash our water table who will fix it? it it even able to be repaired or do we all need to spend thousands on special filters to be able to drink the water? our kids deserve to know we did the right thing to protect our natural resources for them and their kids.
Jim, you may have missed the mountain of data published recently that shows the grounds at both the high school and the Oak Bluffs school both contain more PFAS than any synthetic field would ever introduce. Some PFAS are at a 10x+ multiplier. The data is also posted on the high schools website, the MVC’s and the OB Planning Board’s site.
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