Aquinnah votes down school budget


Updated, May 10

Aquinnah Town Meeting voted to reject the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School proposed budget Tuesday night by just three votes.

A motion to amend the proposed budget down to zero passed 50 to 47.

Tuesday night’s vote is the pinnacle of a tumultuous several weeks for the MVRHS school committee as voters voiced their frustration over an ongoing lawsuit over the proposed turf field.

Aquinnah is the third town to turn down the proposed budget. Chilmark and West Tisbury did so last month. 

The three votes will force the MVRHS school committee to submit a new budget for approval during special town meetings before the start of the next fiscal year, which begins in July. If no deal is reached, the high school will be forced to level-spend based on the current fiscal year budget. And that’s a worry for some top administrators, who say that not only will teacher contracts be impacted, but education for students will be affected as well.

The MVRHS School Committee is scheduled to meet today at 6 pm in executive session.

On town meeting floor in Aquinnah on Tuesday, Up-Island Regional School Committee member Roxanne Ackerman tried to make a motion to follow Tisbury’s example — passing the budget while petitioning the school committee to not use any more funds toward the field lawsuit. But Aquinnah town moderator Michael Hebert did not hear the “second” from some residents, and instead recognized resident David Vanderhoop’s motion to zero out the high school budget. Vanderhoop said Aquinnah “has the key” to the situation. 

“What they’re trying to do and put plastic in our single-source aquifer is totally against human survival, and we all know that,” Vanderhoop said. “The PFAS that this artificial turf creates is going to kill us eventually. Maybe not right away, maybe not tomorrow, or next week or next year, but it’s going to, and that’s common knowledge.” 

Several individuals gave impassioned statements denouncing the lawsuit. A number of residents Tuesday took to the microphone to discuss the risks of PFAS to the Island’s aquifer.

Aquinnah resident Meg Bodnar said since voters cannot amend specific parts of the budget, they are left with “no choice” but to zero it out. She said many Aquinnah families with young children were against this project from the start. 

“We do not want our kids playing on a plastic field for so many reasons, too many to list here,” she said. “This affects us directly.” 

Bodnar also described the field lawsuit as a “train wreck,” and that the “turf war” needs to end. “There’s nothing to show for it except for a bitter and divided Island,” she said. 

Aquinnah resident Kristina Hook called the litigation “frivolous.”

“This is a frivolous suit that affects every human being and living thing on this Island,” she said. 

Multiple individuals called for the lawsuit to be dropped immediately, saying they think an acceptable, revised budget can be established before the summer deadlines. 

“This seems to be the only way we can voice our opinions, because nobody has been listening to us for the last seven years about this,” Aquinnah resident Barbara Bassett said. “And are you telling me you can’t come back with a revised budget we can vote on in a special meeting? I don’t believe that. You can take that litigation right out.” 

School officials, meanwhile, urged Aquinnah voters not to zero out the high school budget.

Superintendent Richie Smith at Aquinnah’s Tuesday meeting said the schools will have to coordinate with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education immediately about funding a budget in the fiscal year 2024 on a month-by-month basis, most likely at fiscal year 2023 levels. 

Smith emphasized how difficult it was to keep the school budget below a 2.5 percent increase. He also mentioned how the school committee voted to pursue settlement talks with Oak Bluffs, and not to use any funds from the fiscal year 2024 budget toward the lawsuit. 

“If this high school budget is zeroed out and the budget is denied, it will impact kids,” Smith said. “I need folks to understand that.”

High school Principal Sara Dingledy said that by amending the school budget to zero dollars, teacher contracts would be impacted.

“If the budget is voted down now, we cannot send out teacher contracts,” she said. “I hired a great science teacher from Arizona who I think is highly unlikely to move her family here without a contract. We have two teachers who have come to us from Brazil on H-1B visas. If there is a lapse in employment, if they cannot get contracts, … their H-1B visas don’t come through.” 

Dingledy also encouraged voters to attend the school committee meetings to have their voices heard, and pushed for the budget’s passage, adding that school administrators do not have a vote on the budget. 

One Aquinnah resident who spoke in defense of passing the budget was Nancy Cotton, a child psychologist, who said, “We are not talking about the kids.” 

“There’s a mental health crisis among children and adolescents in the United States right now,” she said. “To destabilize the high school at this point … is absolutely outrageous. Figure out the stupid turf thing someplace else. We’re tearing at methodology to do that, but don’t take it out on the kids.” 

Although not advocating for either stance on the lawsuit, Aquinnah Select Board member Tom Murphy made several points for residents to consider before casting their vote. He said while the state’s deadline for a budget is in July, there is a teachers’ union contract deadline on June 1. He also pointed out that various school programs will feel an impact from a smaller budget than planned. Additionally, he said, teacher recruitment may be impacted from zeroing out the budget, which is already difficult. Murphy said the amount of time the towns and the school committee have to resolve the budgetary matter was short. 

“You should vote [with] your conscience, but you should be aware of what the downside is for our school department,” Murphy said. 

Also at Aquinnah Tuesday night, two warrant articles related to climate change, with minor language amendments, were passed by voters. One of them is a “Fossil-Fuel-Free Demonstration,” which will restrict and prohibit new buildings and substantial renovation projects from being powered by fossil fuels. If voters approve, the prohibition will take effect on Jan. 1, 2024. The other warrant article is the implementation of the “specialized energy code.”

There was some resistance from people who said the articles were taking away people’s freedom to choose, that the actual impact on climate change would be negligible, and that the articles would hurt contractors. 

However, the demonstration and the specialized code were passed, 56-33 and 55-30, respectively. 

Meanwhile, the voters voted 59-5 to increase the short-term rental tax from 4 percent to 6 percent, although the 2.5 percent administrative fee proposed to go with the tax increase was eliminated in a 65-5 vote. 

Many of the warrant articles Aquinnah residents voted on were spending requests, including $300,000 for the Community Preservation committee’s purposes, $250,000 to paint and make emergency repairs to town facilities, $35,703 for highway construction or improvements, and others. 

There were two warrant articles residents didn’t pass. One was to reject a request to spend $4,317.22 to pay Vineyard Land Surveying & Engineering for an outstanding invoice for Moshup Trail beautification. The other was a petition by the heirs of Shirley A. Francis Jardin to return property taken from their ancestors by the town when it was still officially called Gay Head. While a majority voted in favor of this, it did not meet the two-thirds threshold to pass. 

Voters also recognized active-duty officials, veterans, and law enforcement officers for their service to the country prior to jumping into the warrant.


  1. Wow great news for the wrong reasons. The school budget has been out of control with the escalating costs on every front. From salaries to make-believe positions. We have some of the highest per pupil cost in the state with other communities not even close to what we spend. Let’s look at the overall budget not just one part and reduce.

    • Are Island teachers overpaid?
      Do they make more money than real estate agents?
      Do they have more education?

  2. I am so proud of Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury for standing up and speaking out for the health of our children and the island. Sometimes democracy seems to work.
    Now Mr. Smith, it is not the up island voters, rather the people pushing artificial turf who potentially cost the students, special ed programs and teachers disruptions to their lives. I hope you turn your attention toward the school committee members.
    Once again, thank you, OB Planning Board, for arresting the turf field juggernaut.
    Let’s move on.

    • I find it funny how all the pro grass people feel it is up to the other side to cave and give in. It is the pro grass people that put us where we’re at right now. The MVC approved the plan remember that. And why are you so afraid to hear a judges opinion about the Dover amendment is it because you are afraid that the judge will rule against your wishes, that is what is going on here. The pro grass are scared that they might lose in the courts.

      • Bob– I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to cover the school football field with a half million pounds of plastic. I have documented higher injury rates, likely increased costs, the almost non existent prospect that it can actually be recycled, etc and I am met with “SQUIRRELL–THE DOVER AGREEMENT !!!!!AAARRRRGHHHH !!!!!
        Got anything real ?
        And let me yield a point that actually does not seem to be settled–That of the PFAS issue. I lean towards the point that some PFAS will in fact leach into the ground water, but in fact, there is no overwhelming proof that will happen.

    • Sorry Dr. but it was the up island towns that did this. The turf proponents have vetted this project to the Nth degree. The MVC vetted it to the Nth degree. It has been tested and retested, PFAS will not leach into the ground water. The current PFAS in the soils may however. Those who voted to defund the high school budget just don’t want turf, but unfortunately, that isn’t a good reason to hurt our kids education. The turf field opponents actually caused this by voting the budget down.

      Did you know, no dollars of the budget that was voted down will go to the legal bills associated with the appeal? Did you know, the appeal has been filed and it should be in front of the judge, if it isn’t already, soon? If the judge rules in favor, what will your stance be on the town’s right to appeal that ruling? If it is about the money, then you will not support the town appealing the judge’s ruling, right? But, I bet all of the anti-turf people will jump on board the appeals process if they lose the appeal.

      Back to the subject, the school committee heard WT and Chilmark, as proven by rescinding the vote to not cap the legal fees, but you still support rejecting the school budget. Aquinnah knew this but they still narrowly voted to defund the high school. By no means a resounding approval, those who voted for the budget saw this. So yes, it is on the up island towns, plain and simple, they voted the budget down, that vote has consequences and the island children’s education is that consequence. IMO a very bad decision.

      • Patrick — do you have any information about where the existing levels of PFAS came from ? What those levels are ? How much it is going to cost to remove the existing PFAS ? Are you curious about any of that ?
        Do you actually think we should just cover it all up with a half million pounds of plastic that has PFAS in it, but the manufactures and snake oil salespersons assure us NONE of it will leach out ?
        How is that possible ? Have you ever heard of “microplastics ?
        When a young athlete smashes into the ground and pulverises some random piece of plastic what do you think happens to that microplastic particle on a micro level ? It has a few possibilities– it can immediately get inhaled into the lungs of the players– it can drift off on the breeze and wind up being incorporated into someone’s lawn for the next few millennia, and incorporated into the biome of living creatures, or it can get into the water.
        Do you really think it will just somehow stay out of the environment ?
        Never cause any problems ?
        Really ? Have you thought about this ?

  3. I hope the school committee resubmits their ORIGINAL budget 5-4 or 6-3 vote. Why should the down island towns pay to have a special town meeting to approve another/different budget from the one they passed , in the hopes up island will vote yes on it. This is a three ring circus and it is only hurting KIDS> Perhaps its time for down island to take their roughly 75% of the high school budget, and tell up island, with their roughly 25% or so of the MVRHS budget, sorry!, we will not be held hostage to your small financial input anymore. See what kind of high school you can afford with your roughly 25% of the budget. It is time for down island folk and up island folk who do not like the direction this is going to start speaking up. This hostage taking tactic will come back again and again, for that I AM SURE.
    I would also like to point out in my above scenario, we (the down island towns) would accept any student via school choice from up island at our new high school named the Down Island Regional if “we” have room, perhaps adopting West Tisbury’s feelings about school choice. Yes, I’m being snarky, but this is all so absurd. DEFUNDING the MVRHS budget hurts KIDS, plain and simple.

    • Pretty sad referendum on the confidence of the up island community in our superintendent and high school principal. They both tell, the up island voters that zeroing the budget will hurt kids. But up island voters know better they zero the budget anyways.
      They are so concerned about the plastic turf. Pay no mind to the fact the biggest piece of plastic turf is in chilmark. Pay no mind that the school committee person from chilmark, who is also the chairman of the high school school committee sends his child to a private school that has a plastic turf field.
      Yea right he cares about kids and the environment, he has zero skin in the game, this is all just a power trip game to him.
      Hopefully when upisland builds its new high school they will make him their superintendent. I think they should call it Hypocrite High with a school motto of “do as we say not as we do”
      All kidding aside it is time that we revisit the charter of the high school, the down island towns were kind when they gave the up-island towns an equal vote. That kindness has not been respected. Each down island town pays more individually then the 3 up island towns combined. Chilmark at 6 percent, Aquinah at 1 percent, what an embarrassment we have the tail wagging the dog.
      I say no more, I would like to be one island, use the equity of the entire island equally to fund the schools. But if it up-islands choice to be a divided island, then sadly we must let them go. I wish them the best on building a new high school, ferry dock, airport and hospital.

      • Bringing someone’s kid into this argument is wrong. Just plain wrong. We should be better than that.

        • Susan, he didn’t bring the kid into the argument, you did, he brought the chairman’s choice to send his child to a different school and that that school has turf into the argument. He didn’t attack the child. I think people would like to know that the chairman of the school committee sent his child to a different school, one that has turf, while he fights against allowing our students to have that same option. But, it is is personal right to send his child to any school he wants and his reasons are his, and his alone, and need no explanation. However, he should held accountable for the actions the HE took by leading the motion to defund the school. Maybe you should rethink your presence on the school committee, you obviously don’t have faith in our school.

        • Susan I agree, however, The chairman of the school committee brought everyone’s children into this mess when he ignored the advice of the top educator on the island, the superintendent, and the top educator in the high school, the principal. THey warned him that zeroing the budget would be bad for the kids. He said not my kid, he goes to a nice private school with plastic fields, so i can use everyone else’s kids as pawns in my game. THe chairman of the High school school committee should be removed immediately.

  4. The litigation fees were basically a poison pill in the MVRHS budget.

    It was foolish to expect thinking voters not to notice this.

    The litigation was misguided from the get-go.

    The plastic turf campaign was misguided.

    The principals’ (starting with D’Andrea) priorities were misguided: prioritizing playing fields—and a controversial plan—when the whole school building is falling apart.

    For want of a nail [read, common sense], the battle [read school budget] was lost

    • Interesting Katherine, there was no money in next year’s budget that was going to the appeal. That was reported earlier this week. Your comment is inaccurate. So, the poison pill is that you just don’t want a turf field. Unfortunately for you, those who use the field want it. The school committee and the “principals” you talk about listened to what the users wanted and that is what they were prioritizing. The kids held a rally in front of the school saying just that “support the plan” before the MVC vote. All the coaches who use the field have chimed in as well in support. So it is those, like yourself, who don’t use the field and want to ignore the $50k in testing that was performed who don’t want the field. The school committee did their due diligence and listened to the science, but on this subject if you oppose the plan no matter what is said, no minds will be changed. But, I think you all know that the Judge adjudicating this won’t have a preconceived opinion and will rule on the law and “we” are ready to accept that, but are you?

  5. Why do we keep hiring such awful Superintendents?
    Because awful School Committee Members are elected by awful people?
    The schools are an accurate reflection of the voters.

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