High School Faces Unexpected Bills

By CHRIS BURRELL

The regional high school has already racked up nearly $40,000 in legal bills, negotiating a potential lease of school-owned land for an aquatics center project that is still in the planning and feasibility stages.

News of hefty legal costs connected to the proposed swimming pool plan came amidst other troubling budget figures, showing roughly $90,000 in cost overruns so far this year.

School leaders said the aquatics center group, which has been trying for eight years to build the Island's first public pool, will have to shoulder half those legal fees, but the fact that taxpayers will be hit with any bills for a pool surprised some committee members.

"Because we are bringing land to the table, any legal costs should be borne by the petitioners," school committee member Tim Dobel said at Monday's meeting. "I'm shocked. I thought they'd be picked up by the groups trying to get land."

Negotiations with two other groups who want to build a skateboard park and a cable television studio on high school land have dropped another $16,000 on the pile of legal invoices to be paid by the high school.

School leaders this week denounced the high legal costs and promised they would complain to Ropes and Gray, the Boston law firm hired by the school. But administrators and school committee members also admit they may have made a tactical error in assuming such costs in the first place.

"No one anticipated the costs would be as high as they are," high school principal Peg Regan told the Gazette yesterday. "The school committee should not have taken on the cost of legal expenses. And it's really something that Ropes and Gray could have protected us against. I don't think we'll make that mistake again."

But school committee member Ralph Friedman, who heads up the land use subcommittee, defended the costs, saying that the deal struck with the Martha's Vineyard Aquatics Center will be a boon for the school if the pool is ever built.

"Do I think the billing was excessive? Yes, but the high school is going to get a tremendous benefit long-term programatically from the aquatics center," Mr. Friedman said yesterday.

Terms of the 10-year lease negotiated with the aquatics group would give the school 284 hours of pool time per year plus an additional 72 hours a year for high school swim teams, said Mrs. Regan. In exchange, the school would allow the aquatics center to use up to five acres of land it owns near Martha's Vineyard Community Services.

But at this point, it's hard to gauge the odds of the aquatics center ever becoming a reality. Two years ago, the group suffered sticker shock when their planner handed them a proposal for an $8.85 million facility with an annual operation cost of $885,000.

This week, aquatics center president Ken Bailey told the Gazette that his group is still considering the feasibility of several new designs that range in construction price from $3.5 million to $8 million.

"We have been negotiating to get the land," said Mr. Bailey. "We really haven't been doing much until that happens. We've made no decision [which design] to go with."

Mr. Bailey said the good news from his group's perspective is a new alliance with the YMCA. That association brings no fiscal support but it does offer management expertise, Mr. Bailey said.

"We're a provisional YMCA, but the money comes from the community," he said. "We're still working on feasibility of fundraising; it's a big piece for us."

Mr. Bailey said he knew nothing about legal bills incurred by the high school in the ongoing land use negotiations. But Mr. Friedman said his committee is hoping they can make the aquatics group responsible for the entire bill if the pool project is abandoned.

Meanwhile, in other budget news revealed Monday night, the high school is already dangerously close to exhausting its surplus budget, known as the excess and deficiency fund. Cost overruns are just one reason.

School committee members noted that a lack of policy in the athletics department led to extra costs for ice time at the arena. Coaches were simply scheduling practices as needed without considering the costs, school officials said.

"We need to have this under the athletic director's control who should say to coaches, ‘Here's the budget. Live with it,' " said Mr. Friedman.

In another instance of unforeseen costs, a replacement was hired for the first five months of the school year to replace dean of students Michael Halt, who was called into active military duty for much of last year. The line item for Mr. Halt's salary is already $10,000 in deficit.

High school business manager Margaret Serpa said that many of these costs can be offset by other line items in the budget which have not been tapped so heavily.

But cost overruns combined with some state budget cuts that have already gone into effect this year mean that the high school is more than $500,000 over budget and will need to use almost all of the $566,000 in the excess and deficiency fund.

The high school typically enjoys healthy surplus accounts. By state law, the school is allowed to carry up to five per cent of unused funds into the following fiscal year. With this year's account quickly drying up, school leaders are worried about the impact on next year's budget when further state cuts are almost sure to come.

School committee members voted unanimously to reconvene their budget subcommittee and take another look at next year's budget. "This is not a panic situation," said Mrs. Regan, "but it definitely is dire. Can we maintain the same level of services next year?"