West Tisbury Annual Town Meeting Decides to Remain in School District

By JULIA WELLS

The people of West Tisbury refused to pull out of the Up-Island Regional School District, axed a plan for a gate at the entrance to town beach and cheered their resident historian and Pulitzer Prize winner this week at an annual town meeting that was in many ways an example of democracy straight up.

"I have stood here for years wearing many hats, and tonight I wear my favorite hat of all - it just says citizen," declared Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter.

The comment came during an emotional plea by Mr. Manter to declare Sept. 11 an official town holiday.

"Let the town of West Tisbury lead the way - what more patriotic place for it to begin than in an old-fashioned town meeting like right here," Mr. Manter said.

But voters were not comfortable with the proposal and the article was defeated.

Held on Tuesday night in the West Tisbury School gymnasium, the annual town meeting drew exactly 300 registered voters, who whisked through the relatively short 28-article warrant in just over two and a half hours. Moderator Patrick Gregory presided over the meeting with a sure hand, reading the mood of the voters and prodding them along as they completed the annual business of the town.

At the outset of the meeting there was warm applause for West Tisbury resident David McCullough, who had won the Pulitzer prize one day earlier for his book John Adams.

With little debate, voters approved a $9.3 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year, a 7.7 per cent increase over last year. Town treasurer Cynthia Mitchell, who is also a selectman, gave voters a detailed breakdown of town spending.

Among other things Mrs. Mitchell reported that spending is up this year in the three largest categories - education (9.7 per cent), public safety (4.3 per cent) and general government (8.5 per cent). Education spending in West Tisbury accounts for 64 per cent of the town budget, while public safety is 9.7 per cent and general government is 8.5 per cent, she said.

She also reported that the tax rate is down but valuations are up. The average assessed value of residential property in West Tisbury is now $510,000, while the median assessment is $409,000.

Mrs. Mitchell and the two other selectmen were far less detailed when it came to questions about legal spending during the discussion on the town budget.

Asked for a breakdown of legal fees for the last year, all three selectmen appeared to be caught temporarily off guard, and Mrs. Mitchell said she had not brought a breakdown with her.

"The only thing I can assure you is that the lawyers will get paid," Selectman Early said to scattered laughter. In the end the $27,000 line item for legal expenses went unchanged.

The longest debate of the evening centered on an article calling for the town to withdraw from the Up-Island Regional School District, and this time Mr. Manter was again on the floor, wearing the hat of a finance committee chairman.

Mr. Manter has been a leading proponent in recent weeks of a move to pull the town out of the regional school district amid a conflict over cost allocation. The school district includes the three up-Island towns and two schools (the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools).

In an odd turnabout, one of the other leading proponents of the article to withdraw from the school district urged voters to turn it down.

Jonathan Revere said the article was meant "to fire the issue" but he said the finance committee never completed its own study about the impacts on the town. "The study has failed, and I feel we should vote to remain in the district," Mr. Revere said.

The conflict appears to be rooted in some local resentment over the payment of capital costs for the new Chilmark School. Some voters said they objected to paying the costs after Chilmark voters made a conscious decision to build a school that failed to meet the requirements for state reimbursement.

"What I heard in Chilmark was they built a school and they said ‘We'll pay for it.' Three years later we're paying for it - our property taxes are paying for their school," said Peter Costas.

After more discussion, voters learned the basic facts: This year the town will pay $45,000 for its share of capital costs on the Chilmark School, and West Tisbury will send seven children to the school.

School officials, including school committee chairman Anna Alley and school principal Elaine Pace, issued their own passionate defense of the up-Island school district and the benefits of the town's membership. Mrs. Alley warned that the town stands to lose some $1 million in state reimbursement money if it were to pull out of the district.

Other voters questioned the wisdom of the proposal.

"Where is this sense of unfairness coming from - is it coming from the finance committee or is it coming from the community?" said Liz Hyde.

"A motion to withdraw from the district is a crude club; it doesn't befit the town of West Tisbury to deal with problems this way," said Linda Sibley. The comment drew applause and the article was defeated.

In other business, voters also made a small statement about their community philosophy when a money article came up asking voters to take $4,000 out of free cash for improvements at the Lambert's Cove beach parking lot. The list of improvements included the installation of a gate.

Andrew Woodruff, a local farmer, was the first one to object.

"I am opposed to a gate," he said.

West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey said the gate was proposed as a way to curb an increasing trend toward what she termed "destructive behavior" on the beach at night.

"I think it's a sad day for us all if we have to put a gate down there," said Prudy Burt.

Others agreed, and an amendment was approved to remove the gate from the article.

Voters also approved:

* $4,290 for the town's share of the Cape Light Compact.

* $4,500 for the town's share of the Martha's Vineyard Drug Task Force Grant.

* $45,000 for the town's share of a new ambulance for the Tri-Town Ambulance Service.

* A series of changes to the town personnel bylaws.

Town resident Mal Jones offered up a little creative thought around an article proposing $10,000 for a feasibility study to expand the town library.

Mr. Jones asked for an amendment to include a dance hall in the feasibility study. "The town of Rehoboth has a dance hall in their library and it's a great thing," he said.

Mr. Gregory ruled that studying the dance hall could be done without an amendment to the article.