Town Meeting Time: Chilmark Grapples With School Costs

By CHRIS BURRELL

School costs are driving budget increases across the Island, but in Chilmark, one expense forcing voters to dig into their wallets for education spending may come as a shock.

The Menemsha School, barely four years old, already needs $100,000 in repairs that include replacing moldy floors and rotten doors. Voters will be asked Monday night at annual town meeting to foot the bill. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Chilmark Community Center.

The annual town election takes place Wednesday and will feature five override questions, but no contested races.

Voters will confront a town meeting warrant with 22 proposals, the majority asking them to spend tax dollars. The total budget proposed for next year is $4,961,106, a seven per cent increase over this year.

Repairs to the town's new elementary school are only one facet of the budget pressures facing the town, but they may well be the most aggravating. Voters ponied up $3.6 million four years ago to pay for the school building, opting to shoulder the project themselves without any state aid.

"This shouldn't have happened," selectman Warren Doty told the Gazette yesterday.

"The school is plagued with serious construction-related problems and is a very large issue we are dealing with," wrote selectmen chairman Frank Fenner Jr. in the annual town report just released.

The two selectmen have documented a laundry list of problems. The adhesive used to lay down the flooring failed, causing mold to grow underneath it. The entire floor now needs to be replaced.

The attic needs more insulation to protect water pipes that succumbed to last winter's deep freeze and burst. The sprinkler system and the bell tower are also leaking, and some exterior doors are already rotted, according to Mr. Fenner's report.

Mr. Doty said selectmen are investigating whether the town has any legal recourse to compel the builders to reimburse the town for repairs made to fix shoddy work.

"It's a complicated question," he said. "We want to fix the building and have it right. We can't live with a floor that isn't secure. We have to figure out how to get it all paid for later."

While Chilmark has its own money headaches right at home with their elementary school, the two regional school districts are also leaning heavily on the town to fund their budgets. The reason is two-fold.

The number of Chilmark students enrolled in the West Tisbury School is growing, said Mr. Doty, increasing the town share of the Up-Island Regional School District budget. Costs are also rising because of cuts in state aid, which are forcing all the towns to make up the difference.

As a result, Chilmark voters will have to decide on two override articles dealing with school spending. One asks to borrow $100,000 for the repairs to the Menemsha School. The other calls for $266,000 to make up a shortfall in the budgets for both the Up-Island region and the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District.

Two other big-ticket money questions will call on voters to support spending more than $1.5 million to cover the costs of capping the landfills in Chilmark and Edgartown and improving the Edgartown transfer station.

The first proposal - asking for $350,000 - deals solely with the issue of capping the Chilmark landfill on Tabor House Road. The total cost is expected to be $1.9 million, according to Mr. Doty, but the cost will be shared by Chilmark and the other four towns in the solid waste consortium, the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District.

In a related article, voters will be asked to borrow $1.2 million to pay for shared costs in the district - capping landfills and buying equipment for the transfer station in Edgartown.

At first, the Chilmark finance committee balked at supporting this proposal, but finance committee chairman Dr. Arnold Geiger told the Gazette yesterday that his board is ready to back the borrowing if the refuse district promises to earmark $950,000 for capping the Chilmark landfill.

"Obviously, something has to be done," said Dr. Geiger, "but we have some concerns about previous experiences and things getting paid."

Other spending proposals include: $5,800 for the town's share of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority budget; $15,000 for solar-powered equipment, and $40,000 for an architectural study and repairs to the Engley house, purchased last year in a joint deal with the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.

Five override questions will appear on the ballot Wednesday. Two of the proposals are debt exclusions, meaning they will not permamently raise the tax base. Those deal with the $350,000 for the landfill capping and $100,000 for the Menemsha School repairs. Mr. Doty said those funds would be added into a municipal bond already being sought to pay for the town hall addition.

The other three override questions total just over $466,000 and include a general budget override for $194,000, the money for the regional housing authority and the $266,000 for the schools.

The polls at the Community Center are open Wednesday from noon to 8 p.m. There are no contested races.