Tensions high at MVRHS committee as they propose the same budget

Disagreements linger amongst high school committee members; school administrators express frustration over lack of cooperation.

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The MVRHS school committee.

The same high school budget that was shot down by voters will make a comeback. 

During a tense Thursday evening meeting, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) School Committee voted 7-2 to recertify the same high school budget that was brought before town meeting voters in April and May. However, an explanation will be attached that no fiscal year 2024 money will be used for the field lawsuit; any spending on the litigation will be capped at $20,000 of the remaining $25,000 in the fiscal year 2023 budget’s legal line. 

Up-Island voters decided to zero out the high school budget in the past weeks, in protest of 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 against the town and planning board. The board rejected the proposed synthetic turf field over concerns about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The committee announced earlier this month it will enter into settlement talks with the board, and voted 5-4 not to use any fiscal year 2024 money toward the field litigation. While few details have been publicized, the school committee has proposed a potential settlement to Oak Bluffs.

West Tisbury has already scheduled its special town meeting for June 13. Four out of six towns need to approve the budget for it to advance, and there is not a lot of time remaining for meetings to be scheduled. 

Committee member and Tisbury resident Michael Watts made the motion to certify the budget “as written” on Thursday. Tisbury voters approved the high school budget, but added a nonbinding recommendation for no more funds from the legal line be used toward the field lawsuit.

“I can’t go to my town and ask them to run a special town meeting for something they’ve already approved,” he said. 

Committee members Louis Paciello from Edgartown and Kris O’Brien from Oak Bluffs, whose towns also approved the budget, shared Watts’ sentiments. 

Committee chair Robert Lionette told The Times on Friday that only the up-Island towns will need to take up the budget again through special town meetings. 

Although most committee members felt the demands of West Tisbury and Chilmark were met, Aquinnah had additional concerns, like dropping the appeal and switching out the synthetic turf to a grass field. 

Committee member Kris O’Brien made a point that the athletic field’s surface was irrelevant to the operational budget, since it had to be paid for by donations, per Martha’s Vineyard Commission conditions.

Committee member Roxanne Ackerman and Skipper Manter, who voted against the motion, both said that voters who shot down the budget were concerned about the lawsuit and what was happening with the synthetic turf field; those concerns needed to be addressed. Manter suggested dropping the lawsuit and making a new application to move the turf field away from the water resources area. 

Using the high school budget as leverage was setting a “dangerous precedent,” committee member Kimberly Kirk said. She also called out Lionette for pushing to zero out the budget, describing the process as essentially blackmail.

“The things I’ve seen in the newspaper inciting voters of Aquinnah to vote against the budget, I mean it feels like January 6th,” Kirk said, referencing the attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump after the 2020 election. “This is supposed to be democratic process, and sometimes people lose.” 

In response, Lionette said he pushed the issue because of a “dangerous vote” on April 3 that allowed unlimited funding for the field lawsuit. His town, Chilmark, called for more transparency in the use of taxpayer dollars. “If that’s unethical, I’m in the wrong business,” he said. 

The committee members held further discussion, with segments of back-and-forth disagreements. 

School administrators also went into some detail about what would happen if voters deny the budget. 

Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent Richie Smith said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was notified about the budget situation on the morning of Wednesday, May 10. Without the new budget, the high school will need to figure out how to amass $518,000 for a potential temporary monthly budget. 

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman said the monthly budget that the state would set is only for six months.

“If, by Dec. 1, we do not have a budget passed, the state and DESE come in and take fiscal control of the regional school district,” Friedman said. “That includes all budget transfers, approving all contracts over $25,000, and approving any borrowing, which we are about to enter into, among other things. So, I just wanted you to be aware of that as we try to sort this out. That’s not that far away.” 

Meanwhile, Smith also expressed frustration over the committee’s conduct.

“We have had kids placed squarely into a political debate, and that happens here,” Smith said. “I asked this school committee on several occasions — heck, a year ago, probably almost to the day, I wrote a letter to the editor in two papers asking us to work together. I stand by that, I double down on that.”

Smith continued by saying it is time for the committee to cooperate both publicly and privately. 

“It is an untenable situation for the school administration to operate with this banter that goes back and forth,” he said. “We need better from you guys, period. We need better from you guys. We need to publicly show folks that we’re working together in a more unified way. What I just witnessed had nothing to do with working together.” 

Smith said the committee will need a unified front to get the budget passed during the upcoming special town meetings. 

MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy urged committee members to work together, to stop fighting, and to have no more “gotcha moments.”

“We all are working hard for kids,” she said. “I don’t think anyone here has the motives to try and hold kids and education hostage, but getting past ourselves and working together in a civil way — toward progress, not winning — is not what’s on display here.” 

Although an executive session was scheduled, the committee decided not to enter into one, since their attorney Brian Winner and landscape architect Chris Huntress, whose firm was hired as the track and field designer in 2019, were already participating in the executive session being held by the planning board.

14 COMMENTS

  1. This is just one example of how the entire school system is dysfunctional. Anyone who had a child in the school system during Covid witnessed the incompetence. This stupid debate about the turf should have gone away years ago. No one’s child is going to get a scholarship based upon their performance on either a plastic or grass field. That thinking is just nonsense. Great athletes are born and perform great regardless of the playing field. Let’s spend our taxpayer money on education first.

    • John, no one has ever said, or even thinks, that having a turf field is going to get their kids scholarships, that is your comment alone. However, athletes deserve a level playing field, both figuratively and literally. Games like field hockey and lacrosse are primarily played on turf these days, not to mention the State Tournament rules about playing on turf. Practically all of the school’s we play for away games are now played on turf. Just on the Cape the following schools play on turf: Falmouth, Sandwich, Mashpee, Barnstable, DY, Nauset, Monomoy, and one school plays at Mass Maritime, which has a whole turf complex right on the Canal. DY, Falmouth, and Mashpee’s fields are each under a year old. You are also correct, this debate should have ended years ago, however, the Field Fund and their supporters have played the misinformation game that has drawn this debate out for years. We should have had a turf field years ago. During this entire debate, with all these turf fields around, and they have been for decades, wouldn’t you think that the opposition could have produced one study for the MVC or the planning board that says that PFAS were leached from turf fields? However, not one study was produced, so this has truly been a misinformation campaign led to stop a “plastic” field, nothing more. The opposition only has to “say it”, with no proof to scare people into believing it, and that is all they have done. The school, on the other hand, has had to provide the proof, and they did, the field will not harm the aquifer, as proven by the testing done by the expert labs who the MVC and the planning board hired. Prove me wrong with facts, not theories, and if you can’t, get out of the way and let the school do what is best for the kids of this island. Whether you like it or not, they do know what students want and need. Oh, and BTW, the track team is the team that has suffered the most by this debate, their track will likely be deemed unusable in the very near future, then what? Let the Field Fund explain to them why they don’t have a place to practice or compete because of their misinformation.

  2. “If that’s unethical, I’m in the wrong business” Yes Mr. Lionette, you are in the wrong business. You have lost sight of kids. Sabotaging the budget because you don’t like the democratically taken vote on the committee you chair is simply wrong. You serve at the pleasure of the committee that nominated you and voted you in as chair and you have lost your way. This is not I repeat not the Robert Lionette committee. You are not an individually mandated agent.. of your own committee. By all rights you should be asked to step down or better yet if you want to go rogue step down yourself. In my opinion you should have led your town to vote in the budget which you sat in on as a committee member. You should not have led the charge to defund the MVRHS budget in Chilmark. As chair you have a responsibility greater than yourself.

    • Thank you Tina. Mr. Manter, Mr. Lionette, Ms. Ackerman, will you please put the kids you represent ahead of your own agenda? We get it, it’s been perfectly clear, you don’t like the turf field, however, everyone of your coaches who use the field, and your students-athletes, want the turf field, it is what is best for the high school athletic program. Maybe you should look out for their needs and not your own biases. Please go back to your towns and convince your towns that they were heard, and then support voting for the budget. What was done was wrong, however, it can be undone. Lastly about the executive session meetings, where is the outrage toward the Town of Oak Bluffs Planning Board, they met in executive session to discuss the settlement offer, where is their transparency? You know why, because executive sessions are necessary when meeting with lawyers because not all information is for public consumption and review. This is where you discuss proposals, iron out suggestions, find working solutions, learn about the laws regarding the situation, allow discussions to be had that may not be appropriate for the public consumption, and lastly, come up with a unified proposal to present to the opposing side. When the opposing side then accepts or denies, that is when said proposal should become public, I hope. IMO, the planning board should accept any settlement offer because they will likely lose the appeal and will end up saving us taxpayers money in the long run.

      • well well well Patrick Cleary I hope you are being heard. there is nothing sinister about executive session, nothing. UP ISLAND… Vote for the school budget its a win/win for kids,teacher, staff and admin. Then take your message to voting in those that agree with you. this is a democracy after all… AND SINCE ITS STILL A DECOCRACY THE VOTES MATTER 7-2 I BELIEVE IT WAS TO BRING BACK BUDGET TO UP ISLAND TOVOTE ON 7-2!!!!!!!
        7-2
        7-2
        7-2
        BY FAR A MAJORITY

  3. Sorry to read about MV Regional School budget woes with some towns (3) voting not to participate in funding the school system because they oppose a new athletic field. School should not be held hostage because of this. Falmouth had years of wrangling and studies with regard to installing a turf field. A small group fought it every step of the way. Despite many studies and research that proved the turf field was not harmful, the opponents were not swayed. Eventually it was voted in and the field laid down. It has been a total success. Student athletes all love it and there is a schedule in place for all boys and girls teams to use it. Maintenance is minimal and there is no harm to the environment. PFA harm is a red herring. Additionally, the town voted additional funding at town meeting to revitalize other school and town grass fields. The result is a win for both sides of the argument. If the proposed Island turf field will be funded by private sources then it is a huge win for the school district. Rather than have continued division by lawsuits resulting in lost money and further division, the entire school district, all town voters, should have a binding vote on the issue. Let the majority decide. Good luck.

  4. The opposition always yells “science, science”” but when the science shows that PFA’s in turf dont cause any harm, they still continue. They do it with pesticides, with fluoride, with all manner of things they consider toxic but never look at ppm’s.

    • andy– given the thousands of comments you have posted here, this one is right up there as one of the most ridiculous.
      You start with your “normal” rant about what those who disagree with your opinion think or want, and then you continue with some sort of attempted defamation implying “they” are fine with other toxic chemicals.
      Give it a break– I know that in the republican party, lies and projecting what “they” think go over well, but you are trolling liberal la la land here–

      • I could swear that when we got a new Editor, there were attached new rules of not naming names, not attacking other posters, no ad hominem. I guess I was wrong.

        • Andy– I have had many a comment deleted by the new editor.
          Everything I said was true. Pointing out the tactics of another commenter is well within the rules.
          Your original comment did exactly what I say you do.
          We are all wrong sometimes. Although some of us are wrong more than others.

  5. Who is the opposition?
    The people opposed to turf?
    The people opposed to plastic?
    The people with a different of point view than andrew?
    PPM is too crude a scale.
    Science says that no baby has ever been aborted.
    Babies breath air

  6. The school budget and the proposed turf field are two seperate issues. Robert Lionette & Skip Manter are willing to hurt the high school & our children to get their way.
    They should resign from the school board

  7. I am appalled that Kimberly Kirk would compare this dispute to January 6. I want to remind her that the residents of Martha’s Vineyard appropriately exercised their responsibilities of citizenship by showing up at town meetings and debating policy and funding issues that were before them. Whether you agree or disagree with the conclusions they reached, the votes were right and proper, legal and orderly. This was nothing like January 6. I am proud that citizens care enough to make their voices heard. Civic leaders would do well to honor those voices.

Comments are closed.