School committee is wrong to use private funding


Private money has no place in public, governmental affairs. It’s undemocratic, unethical, and sets a dangerous precedent.

But that’s exactly what the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee is using to fund a legal battle against the Oak Bluffs planning board in order to get their way on an artificial turf field; a board that, right or wrong, is trying to protect the town’s drinking water.

Backed into a corner after a tumultuous town meeting season, the committee voted to use private donations, from mostly anonymous donors, to pay for its lawsuit. The committee is appealing a decision by the planning board that rejected the field over concerns that emerging contaminants called PFAS might get into the groundwater.

“We should accept the $5,000 with gratitude,” committee member Kris O’Brien is quoted as saying during last week’s meeting, when the private donations were accepted.

The rationale of the school committee is easy to understand. In the spring, the committee voted against setting a limit on the budgeted legal funds. Voters at four of six Island town meetings caused an uproar. Rightfully so. Not setting a limit for the use of taxpayer money to override another elected board through the courts is problematic, and West Tisbury, Aquinnah, Chilmark, and Tisbury residents all voted — mostly overwhelmingly — to hold the committee accountable.

And the school committee listened. They pledged not to use money from the fiscal year budget beginning in July for the lawsuit. 

But their lawsuit against the Oak Bluffs planning board wasn’t over. Earlier this month, representatives of the school committee, with their attorney present, met with representatives of Oak Bluffs in what were said to be the early stages of settlement talks. Next, the appeal had a hearing before a judge earlier this month in Massachusetts Land Court. Both took place during the current fiscal year, with attorney fees racking up. The school committee has to pay its attorney somehow. 

Enter two payments from private individuals. One was an anonymous donation of $2,000, and the other was $3,000 from Islander Regis Nepomuceno and unnamed friends. Who are behind these donations, and what their motivations are, aren’t exactly clear at this time.

In fairness to some school committee members, if they chose not to accept the funding, they might get sued by their attorney for not paying him; it’s unclear where they would get the funding. Which makes us wonder why this wasn’t discussed earlier. Better to know where your money is coming from before you spend it.

Regardless, using private funding is a new low. The committee represents a public school that is accountable to the whole Island community, and private money can’t be allowed to tip the scales for any project. Is there a quid pro quo with the funding? 

It also raises the question of who is behind these payments. Are they parents concerned about their kid’s athletic experience, or are they sympathetic to the synthetic turf industry? Will the private donors pay the millions of dollars in remediation it will take if the town’s drinking water tests for PFAS above a federal standard? For some perspective, what if the Oak Bluffs planning board started accepting private, anonymous donations? That would severely impact their ability to fairly judge a project under their review.

School committee members are elected to decide what projects to undertake, and secure funding that the entire community will agree to, without a back door for select projects. That is why we have taxes, so that elected officials make decisions that benefit the community and not the individuals or businesses with enough money to make donations.

Right or wrong, there is concern among residents of Oak Bluffs and across the Island that the turf field could impact the quality of groundwater, and eventually drinking water. The school committee needs to come to grips with that public perception, and work with it. Right now, they are trying to ram the field through, ethics be damned.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Anonymous money raises so many questions including the motives for the contributions, AND the motive for choosing to be anonymous.
    Here’s the thing: A public school is for the public, by the public. Decisions about its management should not be driven by shrouded funders, nor by overdue bills for disallowed expenditures.

  2. It is not the least bit unusual for private entities to make donations of various amounts to island municipalities. It’s commonplace for such donations to appear on the meeting agendas/minutes, and the MV Times should obviously know this. Just yesterday the OB Select Board voted to accept three such donations, including $15,000 from the Summercamp Hotel designated for the OB fireworks. Where is the outrage over these donations? After all, “Private money has no place in public, governmental affairs. It’s undemocratic, unethical, and sets a dangerous precedent.” Or is it only certain private donations that offend your sense of ethics – perhaps just those that support causes that you disagree with?

    • I am an Oak Bluffs taxpayer, and I am not happy about having to fund both sides of this dispute.

    • Perhaps I’ve misunderstood but I thought that this specific use of funds is highly controversial, AND that the expenditure had been specifically disallowed by a contentious but very public process. Are the uses of those other anonymous contributions generating similar heat — figuratively and potentially literally?

  3. Anonymous donations usually are anonymous to the public, but known to the recipient, because they are usually paid by check. There is no accountability for the anonymous cash donations made to the school committee last week. One wonders if such a donation is even legal for the school committee to accept.

  4. So when the Field Find offered to pay to put grass fields in and maintain it, the school school should have said “no thanks”? Not an issue because the reneged on their promise anyway. The turf field will be privately funded, per a contingency put on it from the MVC. Private donations to the school happens all the time. The WT school accepted the donations from the field fund, did they not? So Mr./Ms editor, it’s because you don’t support this field you write your editorial, how about some equal coverage? Why don’t you interview someone who supports the field and get someone’s, other than your own, opinion? Your paper always seems to have a slant against the field. More than half of your readers support the field and the school committee members who are putting the kids needs ahead of personal bias, let’s hear from them.

  5. Susan
    The “Elephant on the Room” is the turf field not “dark money”. Why aren’t you upset about Robert Lionette & Skip Manter trying to defund the high school 2024 budget to get their way. That seems to be a much more egregious act than accepting $2000 dollars anonymous.

  6. As a member of the Chilmark Finance Committee I would hope that you know about the legality of anonymous donations.
    Would you reject an anonymous cash donation of a million dollars to the Town of Chilmark?
    If paid by check would insist on outing the donor?

  7. When the PFAS chemical companies and their polluters are outted by the EPA and the goverment asks for them to contribute to the cleanup of our water , make no mistake that the turf industry will be called to answer for their reckless use of toxic materials and sales pitch of a pefect playing surface over the last 25 years . This is more than the people who serve their desires on the school board or Islanders who use their vote as protest . This is about a 9 billion dollar industry that wants to tell the world that even Martha’s Vineyard , one of the last outposts of pristine nature has a plastic turf . Huntress Assoc continues to use the MVRHS sport complex as an example for other schools. This is wrong .
    I don’t care what this plastic carpet is made of , from the beginning of its production to its dumping , it’s goes against every environmental initiative MANY are trying to accomplish. Why would we scape away living breathing soil to install this ? As our earth warms and our natural resources become polluted , I ask all those involved ( and we’re all involved ) to come together to use what nature has given us, Grass. Our MVRHS althletes and coaches continues to win and deserve action on our existing fields . STOP FIGHTING . We don’t want a plastic field on MV and we never will.
    Our MV students as young as pre-school to the many graduates studying environmental science are learning we must change our disregard for nature and adjust our human habits . How does this plastic product align with our values for a higher Edu . We have so many other initiatives to accomplish for our students, please drop the appeal, respect a protected water resource , be transparent about who is funding this, and why they will only fund it if they can install a plastic turf.
    Our island scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, teachers and food growers have all written opinions against this plastic field. The MVC decided it was worth the risk , I and many other completely disagree.
    Thank you to all the coaches and assistants that encourage our kids to play sports , find their personal potential and have become mentors to so many . Sincere apologies to our students who have had to deal with this dark cloud over their school , taking the light away from so many great things going on.
    This debate has done real harm to our community and that is a shame .

    • Have you checked all the materials you sell to see if there is PFAS in any of them? We are full of inconvenient truths and have a habit of picking and choosing a story that fits everyone but us. How about in your home, your clothes. It is so easy to wave a banner. It is hard to practice what the banner says.

    • Very wise and from an island educated resident, this comment from Becca…thank you, nothing more to be said.

  8. Becka, you should maybe ask Susan Murphy if the biggest plastic field on the Vineyard is still in Chilmark. seems with all the horrors of a plastic field it should be removed. post haste.

  9. Seems logical. Oh wait. I might want to play tennis there or desire to be invited up on the hill. No pfas or micro plastic bother at all! Please invite me.

  10. I have no problem with private money being used. In fact, many public entities apply for grants from private organizations. The issue is anonymous donors in my view.

    • Would you have a problem with a million dollar, unearmarked donation, to MVRHS? If it was in cash would you throw it in the trash? How about a million dollar donation earmarked for a grass field? Should the donner be outted?

  11. When the need to be right & the need to win a desired project outcome by any means possible becomes so great that a committee feels entitled & compelled to disregard the will of the Voters, to ignore the protection of our natural resources, & to disregard the health of our children, to seek & accept private funds to buy their way forward – its time to stop. The Committee members have forgotten who they were hired by & who they work for. The School Committee members need to explain why their collective actions were reasonable or even remotely acceptable. The Committee members need to explain why they should be allowed to stay on in their positions going forward after such disrespecting the will of the Voters. The Voters will decide the final outcome.

    • Why wait. You can recall them now. Take action or stop complaining. This incessant narrative of being wronged has a solution. Nobody wants to actually do anything. Why don’t you also fundraise for a multimillion dollar sorts complex that is great for kids and the island community. This is what those members who put themselves out there have been trying to do. Take it on. Have at it.

    • Mary Jane, what will of the voters are you talking about? There has been no island wide vote so stop with the “voters will” stuff. You have +/- 250 “up island” people who actually didn’t vote to not deny the field, they voted to a) not fund the high school budget based on the appeal but later approved it with the promise of no 2024 budget money used, b) to require no “anonymous” donations above $5,000.00, which hasn’t happened.

      You seem to think your desire is the desire of the entire island, let me clue you in, it isn’t. Many believe that the planning board denial was reached with bias and not in their lane, and want to see this through. Let me remind you, that at every stage of this process votes were taken and they all, except for a 2-2 vote that got us here today, were majority votes: The HS School committee, The MVC, The Planning Board itself, all voted to approve the project. Each vote was taken after hours of testimony; scientific evidence paid for by the voters was heard proving the field is safe to the environment, opinions in opposition were heard, and opinions in favor were heard, and with all of this testimony provided each vote came out in favor of the project. So to follow your logic, the school is doing exactly as you want, to follow the will of the votes, the votes that have been taken. Your “claim” that the will of the Voters isn’t being followed is false.

      You don’t want the project, that is your rite, but you don’t speak for me and my friends who think this is a joke, that this field should have installed years ago, to give our kids a safe and competitive field, like the majority of the schools have on the Cape

  12. Hi Mary Jane
    I am confused who the will of the voters are. Three towns held a straw vote that carries no legal weight, the people opposed to a turf field turned out. There have been previous votes that supported the turf project. This project has passed every true vote in the past seven years. Use of the E & D money to pay for the design, the MVC held three full meetings, received over eighty eight thousand pages of information and spent $55,000 on test then passed the project. It has been called the most vetted decision the MVC has ever done.
    The committee members are staying the course in the face of Ewell Hopkins illegal denial of a permit to give our kids an athletic field they deserve. Mr Goldsmith, the Oak Bluffs Town attorney in 2020 told Mr Hopkins he did not have the right to review the turf field or the affect it would have on the aquifer.
    Two engineering firms and a town facilities manager who testified before the MVC stated that grass fields alone can not withstand the use our school will palace on the fields.
    Concerning the damage to the island water the engineering & testing firms hired by the MVC stated that the damage is de-mininus.
    As far as the numbers supporting the project a petition of 820 signatures from people on or from the island was presented to MVC . I would suggest you question Robert Lionetti & Skip Manters defunding the high school 2024 budget to get their own way.

  13. I want to drop off a bag, at the high school with a million dollars, will they refuse it if I refuse to ID.
    What if I put in a note “to to used for natural turf only”?

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