Voters on Martha’s Vineyard should be concerned about who is representing their interests on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School School Committee.
Three town meetings on the Vineyard this spring voted very decisively against the construction of a synthetic turf field at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. They are nonbinding votes, but votes nonetheless, and all overwhelming.
Aquinnah, West Tisbury, and Chilmark all recently asked the MVRHS School Committee to maintain grass fields and not build synthetic turf.
Tisbury supported a nonbinding request earlier in the spring that asked the school committee to stop using taxpayer money to fund a lawsuit against the town of Oak Bluffs for rejecting the turf field proposal. Voters in Tisbury said they were fed up with the committee taking an Island town to court.
Following the tumultuous town meetings, with their school budget in limbo, the school board voted to allocate no funding to the lawsuit in the next fiscal year budget, which begins in July. That was enough to appease voters in the three up-Island towns to move forward with a budget.
Seemingly, that would be it for the lawsuit. And maybe the beginning of the end of the turf debate.
But the school committee has continued to hold executive sessions. There’s been no indication the committee will withdraw. And there’s a hearing before a judge in three weeks.
The most recent decision by the school committee — reached last week — is to sit down for a joint meeting with the planning and select boards in Oak Bluffs to discuss a possible outcome.
It is a noble idea to communicate. It would be good if that meeting were held in public, as recommended by the committee. That will give voters a sense of how elected officials arrive at their decision. Maybe they can decide to split off a subcommittee, so there aren’t close to 20 people trying to build consensus around the issue, as was recommended by the Oak Bluffs planning board to a Times reporter.
But there isn’t a lot of room to negotiate this lawsuit. The planning board rejected the school committee’s application for a turf field. They can’t take that decision back. Unless the application is changed, they can’t review the same project for another two years, per state law. Aside from moving the proposed turf field to a different area — a laughable proposal — what else could the two sides negotiate in a settlement?
But more to the point, one key item is missing in the committee’s proposed meeting: The committee hasn’t dropped the lawsuit. They are still suing the town they want to have an open dialogue with. That’s similar to extending an olive branch while also holding a sword.
If the committee wanted to have an open, constructive dialogue, one way to extend the olive branch is to drop the lawsuit. But the only way to do that is by canning the synthetic-turf idea. The fact that the committee hasn’t yet done that raises questions of whether they intend to or not. Which raises further questions about how many rounds of litigation they’re willing to go.
Without funding in their budget for the next fiscal year, will they be accepting private donations to fund the lawsuit? We have serious reservations about outside groups funding a lawsuit against the town of Oak Bluffs. There are always strings attached to outside funding, and for a public school system, that is not a good idea.
Also, could the committee just reverse their vote, taken earlier this year, and take money from somewhere else in the budget to fund rounds of litigation?
The school committee does have two unknowns they can lean on. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown did not take votes similar to the other four Island towns. The town meetings in both those towns were held the same night as West Tisbury, when the budget disagreement and following drama first unfolded.
Because this issue has weighed so heavily in town politics and seemingly taken so much attention away from a focus on education, it would be a good idea for those two towns to hold a vote to get a sense of what their thoughts are. Maybe a nonbinding question at town meeting or at the ballot. However, judging by how the four other towns voted with requests before them, it isn’t looking good.
But regardless of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, if the school committee continues to push forward with this litigation, it will be against the will of voters. The school’s budget would not have passed without the endorsement of the three up-Island towns or Tisbury. Part of their conditions for approving the school’s budget was to not fund this lawsuit.
So, school committee, the ball is in your court. By dropping the lawsuit, you’re listening to the voters. Extend an olive branch and hear the concerns of Oak Bluffs. Craft a plan the community can get behind. The longer the debate rages on, the longer the fields remain a mess and the focus seemingly not on education.