School District Weighs Choices

Meetings in West Tisbury, Chilmark Explore Future of Up-Island Public Education; Costs in Chilmark Are Central

By CHRIS BURRELL

Last night, more than 80 people - parents, teachers, alumni, selectmen and community members - rallied around the Chilmark School. Despite declining enrollment and pressure to cut costs in the Up-Island Regional School District, they vowed they would not close their school down.

The groundswell of support for the little school came less than an hour after a bare-knuckled meeting in West Tisbury where town finance committee members talked about the Chilmark School as a huge financial burden.

In back-to-back meetings, two distinct visions emerged: Chilmark wants its school but West Tisbury fiscal leaders can't stomach the cost and are calling for their town to withdraw from the regional school district, made up of Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury.

"I think Chilmark should keep their school. I just don't want West Tisbury to pay for it," said Peter Costas, an outspoken member of the West Tisbury finance committee.

His comments came during a joint meeting of the finance committee and up-Island school committee in the West Tisbury School library. Some 30 people attended.

A defiant Chilmark selectman, Warren Doty, told Mr. Costas: "If you tell us you don't want us, we'll withdraw. If you want to kick us out, we'll go run our own school. We've had a Chilmark School for 200 years. We're going to have a Chilmark School next year and the year after that."

Last night's finance committee meeting in West Tisbury was dominated by complicated financial scenarios that seemed to polarize two towns.

The finance committee had asked school leaders to see what the savings would be if West Tisbury left the school region, if school choice were abandoned and if the Chilmark School were shut down.

What shocked finance committee members was the news that pulling out of the region - a decision West Tisbury voters will consider next month at their annual town meeting - would actually end up costing their town more than $600,000 in one year alone.

Mr. Costas seemed incredulous, asking: "If we withdrew and had nothing to do with the Chilmark School, isn't it a saving for us?"

The answer was no, but the explanation was complex. Chilmark School principal Carlos Colley, the former business manager in the Vineyard public schools who helped prepare the fiscal scenarios, explained that leaving the school district would not rid the West Tisbury School of students from Aquinnah and Chilmark, but it would lower the reimbursement rate for their education to $5,000 per pupil, the going rate set by the state for school choice students.

That's a third of the actual per-pupil cost in the West Tisbury School, which is currently $15,182 a year.

"Instead of getting the true cost, you're only getting $5,000," said Kathy Logue, chairman of the Up-Island school committee and the town treasurer in West Tisbury.

There was considerable skepticism about the financial scenarios and their assumptions. Whether leaving the region, scuttling school choice or both, none offered West Tisbury any hope of saving money.

Not surprisingly, finance committee members zeroed in on a fifth scenario that showed a $415,000 savings to West Tisbury if the Chilmark School were closed and the students all sent to the West Tisbury School. In this financial prediction, the three towns in the district would save a total of $768,216, according to the figures.

The per pupil cost in Chilmark is $19,820, said Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash.

Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a West Tisbury selectman who heads up the finance committee and also sits on the regional school committee, saw the numbers and said he couldn't justify the expense for one school.

Finance committee members seized on the idea that Chilmark must shoulder this cost to remain in the region.

"Are they willing to pay that [money] to keep the Chilmark School open and not balance it on the backs of West Tisbury taxpayers?" asked Mr. Costas, who hammered away at the notion.

School committee member Diane Wall of West Tisbury attacked his logic. "To say that's what Chilmark owes West Tisbury is erroneous," she said.

Ms. Logue also urged a different line of thinking. "Leaving the district would cost us upwards of a half million dollars. It would cost us money to end school choice," she said. "Hard times are times when you pool resources."

No more than a half hour later in Chilmark, the mood was much different. Chilmark town moderator Everett Poole presided over a public hearing aimed at identifying the strengths, weaknesses and possible remedies for the Chilmark School. Another goal was forming a task force.

Turnout was strong as people filled benches and seats and then lined the walls and even sat on the floor, many of them rising to their feet to praise the school's unique qualities - a family-like atmosphere and a long history.

As for shortcomings, the building and the enrollment were clearly focal points. Selectman Frank Fenner assured people that problems with the floors, roof and plumbing were not unusual in a new building and are being fixed.

Alicia Knight, a member of the Chilmark School advisory council, championed the idea of opening a preschool on the campus as a way to feed enrollment. "It would bring people in the door," she said.

Ms. Smith suggested leasing one of the school classrooms for a preschool.

There was also the question of why some parents in Aquinnah and Chilmark are choosing not to send their children to the Chilmark School. Some suggested surveying parents to understand the reasons behind those decisions.

Mary Murphy-Boyd said affordable housing initiatives need support in order to boost enrollment. Others urged the school to improve its public relations and outreach work to spread the word about the advantages of a small school with multi-aged classrooms.

The outpouring of support behind the Chilmark School leaves little question about what Chilmark wants. The question now is what the West Tisbury finance committee and voters in that town will decide. It will take more than one vote to leave the regional school district.

But at least one West Tisbury selectman, Glenn Hearn, drove up to Chilmark School last night and told people there, "West Tisbury is paying big numbers to finance this thing.

"You've got to think about sucking up those costs," he added.