School District Shows Strains

West Tisbury Finance Committee Pushes for Drastic Measures, Proposing the Dissolution of Up-Island District

By CHRIS BURRELL

Concerned at the prospect of spiraling educational costs, dwindling state aid and declining enrollment, the West Tisbury finance committee is pressing school officials up-Island to consider drastic measures - among them, shutting down the Chilmark School.

The school closure is just one of three scenarios facing the Up-Island Regional School District after a joint meeting last week with the financial team in West Tisbury.

For the second time in two years, the West Tisbury finance committee is also calling on voters at the annual town meeting in April to withdraw from the regional school district, which was formed in 1993.

But this year, the threat is being taken seriously.

"What's different now is we're in tighter financial times. We're starting to see this convergence," said Kathy Logue, chairman of the up-Island regional school committee and the town treasurer in West Tisbury.

"The town of Chilmark doesn't want to close their school but we've got some issues that can't be avoided much longer," she added. "We're going to have to be creative if we're going to hold on to that school."

Finance committee chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who is also a selectman in West Tisbury, believes the cost-sharing formulas in the regional school district and the high per-pupil costs at the tiny Chilmark School - more than $20,000 a year per student - place an unfair burden on taxpayers in his town.

But with a shoving match up-Island just getting started, Chilmark leaders said yesterday that closing down their small school - which currently enrolls 45 kindergarten through fifth graders - is not an option. Chilmark selectman Warren Doty told the Gazette that his town would keep the school alive even if West Tisbury voters back a measure to leave the up-Island school district.

"We want a community school in our town, and we are going to figure out how to make it work," said Mr. Doty. The new school building, constructed four years ago at a cost of $3.6 million, has room for 100 students.

The region, made up of Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, operates two schools: a K-5 facility in Chilmark and a K-8 school in West Tisbury. Enrollment in West Tisbury currently stands at 354.

Back in West Tisbury, the finance committee's logic is simple: They believe that pulling out of the district will save taxpayers money, but they have asked principals of the region's two schools - Chilmark and West Tisbury - to crunch the numbers and assess the savings.

"It warrants investigation to determine whether there's any substance to the allegation that costs will be less," said West Tisbury school principal Elaine Pace.

Two years ago, the answer to that was almost a no-brainer: Leave the regional school district, and you'll forfeit almost $1 million in state aid.

But now as state aid, particularly for transportation costs, is drying up, that argument carries less weight. State funding for busing sent to the Up-Island region in 2002 was $556,000. This year, the aid package is $363,000. Next year, the forecast is that it will be cut to $138,000.

The numbers game is daunting.

"With a major change [being proposed], a calculation of what you're going to get the next year from the state is a huge assumption," said Chilmark School principal Carlos Colley. "It may or may not be true. It's just educated guesswork."

Predicting enrollment also appears to involve some guessing, but the fact that there's a limited supply of students up-Island is only adding to the stress level. Both Chilmark and West Tisbury have seen their student populations thin over the last three years. In 2001, there were 392 students in the West Tisbury School. Chilmark had 59 students last year.

There are actually three schools in the region competing for a pool of students. The third is the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, which is situated in West Tisbury. Currently, 43 students from the three up-Island towns are enrolled at the charter school.

Enrollment issues are a sore point for up-Island school officials since those numbers dictate how much money the region has to pay the charter school when students from their three towns opt for the alternative.

Unique circumstances create a double-whammy for the region. First, the high per-pupil rates in Chilmark drive up the average for the regional school district, forcing the up-Island district to pay nearly $16,000 to the charter school for each student who attends.

Secondly, there's the matter of the reimbursement formula set by the state, which allows the charter school funding to eat up nearly 12 per cent of the up-Island region's total annual budget. All but two other school districts in the state enjoy a lower cap of nine per cent.

The difference is $200,000, a sum that the up-Island region wants back and the charter school leaders are loathe to give up. State lawmakers are expected to vote on legislation this spring that could push the cap back down to nine per cent for all schools in the state.

Meanwhile, the enrollment issue within the up-Island district itself has its own complications. Consider this fact: While the Chilmark School has only 45 students this year, another 26 eligible students who live in Aquinnah and Chilmark are bypassing the Chilmark School and choosing to attend the West Tisbury School.

Again, the upshot of that choice drives up the per-pupil costs in Chilmark, where the operating budget alone this year is $899,000.

"It's hard to justify the expense of the Chilmark with only 45 students there," said Mr. Manter.

But Susan Parker, the sole Chilmark member of the up-Island regional school committee, said she is committed to helping preserve and energize a unique school.

"In an era where rural schools are becoming more endangered, many of us feel this is a treasure we want to keep," she said.

Much of the energy is now pointed to a March 4 meeting at the Chilmark School, when school leaders, the West Tisbury finance committee and even Chilmark selectmen plan to sit down at the same table and discuss ways to solve the problem.

That meeting is also the deadline for Mr. Colley, Ms. Pace and Amy Tierney, the business manager for the Vineyard public schools, to delivers their cost analysis of three options: closing the Chilmark School, letting each town operate its own school or going back to the old school choice system under which the up-Island towns simply reimbursed each other for students who crossed boundaries for their education.

Ms. Tierney described the process as something of a nightmare, especially if the region actually broke up and forced all kinds of changes, including teacher layoffs and retooling the bus operation.

"It may be cheaper to run the district if they are all in one building," she conceded. "It may come to that."