West Tisbury Committee Wants Chilmark to Share More Financial Burden

By CHRIS BURRELL

The fight over the cost of education up-Island took a nasty turn this week as West Tisbury finance leaders traveled to Chilmark and pitched their hard-line solution: Pay a bigger share of the school costs or consider leaving the regional school district.

At issue for West Tisbury finance committee members is the price tag on operating the Chilmark School, a kindergarten to fifth grade facility with just 45 students and a per-pupil cost of $19,820.

"The thing that seems fairest to us is if both towns took care of their own schools, their kids would be supported by their own taxpayers," said Peter Costas, a vocal member of the West Tisbury finance committee.

His board has sponsored a proposal at the annual town meeting calling for withdrawal from the up-Island regional school district.

"Maybe Chilmark would want to do the same thing," Mr. Costas added.

Hammering hard at their position, the finance team from West Tisbury argued repeatedly that the cost-sharing formula in the regional school district puts an unfair burden on West Tisbury taxpayers.

But Chilmark officials - the finance committee and two of its three selectmen - weren't buying the argument.

"I'm not convinced the formula is unfair. You'll have to persuade me and a critical mass of the Chilmark voters that it's unfair," said Doug Sederholm, a member of Chilmark's finance committee.

"I've looked at some of the numbers and I don't think they're valid, frankly," he added later in the meeting. "As I sit here, I don't know what to believe, but I sure don't believe your numbers."

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty also bristled at the onslaught from his neighbors to the northeast, saying that he would consider backing a proposal to take Chilmark out of the three-town school district, which is made up of Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury.

"If you push us too hard, that's where we're going," he said.

The sour mood did not go unnoticed.

Fellow Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner waited almost an hour before wading into the debate, but when he did, he attempted to ease the tension.

"What concerns me is that we work through this in a fashion that doesn't alienate the people to West Tisbury to Chilmark and vice-versa," he said. "I hope we don't run a rift through the towns for a few dollars."

His comments seemed to illuminate a critical difference between the two towns. In West Tisbury, the money's tight.

"I don't want to run a rift through the towns either, but the amount of money is substantial," said Jim Powell, a member of the West Tisbury finance committee.

West Tisbury finance committee members said that while Vineyard school leaders forecasted that it would cost their town $600,000 in one year if they left the region, their own calculations showed a savings of about $200,000.

The up-Island district consists of both the Chilmark School and the West Tisbury School, which runs from kindergarten through eighth grades. Both schools have seen enrollment fall over the last three years. State aid cuts and a tuition reimbursement formula - higher than most communities in the state - paid to the Martha's Vineyard Charter School have compounded the fiscal pressures on the regional school district.

Wednesday's meeting was the first time that boards from both towns have sat down to discuss the controversial issue of shared school costs, but the session comes less than a month after back-to-back meetings in the two towns laid the groundwork for a political collision up-Island.

On March 4, the West Tisbury finance committee, along with the up-Island regional school committee heard a presentation from school leaders who had prepared five financial scenarios. Those scenarios analyzed the fiscal impact if West Tisbury left the school region, if school choice were abandoned and if the Chilmark School were shut down.

The last scenario caught the attention of West Tisbury finance committee members because it promised $415,000 in 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.

West Tisbury leaders emerged from that meeting wanting to put pressure on Chilmark - not to close their school, but to pay for it. While West Tisbury selectmen have not taken an official position about withdrawing from the district, one selectman, Glenn Hearn, stood up at the Chilmark School on March 4 and issued this statement: "West Tisbury is paying big numbers to finance this thing. You've got to think about sucking up those costs."

His comments came during the second half of the March 4 double-header of meetings devoted to up-Island school issues. The meeting made one thing clear: Chilmark had no intention of closing its school.

The groundswell of support was more than 80 people strong. A task force in Chilmark is already working on ways to boost enrollment. A survey of parents - including ones who have taken children out of the school or opted to send them to other Island schools - is also in the works.

This week, Chilmark finance committee chairman Marshall Carroll asked his counterparts in West Tisbury to be patient.

"We've got a task force working on it. Give us a chance to straighten it out," he said.

West Tisbury finance committee members have zeroed in on the high per pupil costs in Chilmark because they drive up the average per-pupil costs in the region, forcing the district to pay roughly $16,000 for each student from the region who attends the charter school.

Al DeVito, a West Tisbury finance committee member, pointed out that per pupil costs in Chilmark are $5,000 higher than in West Tisbury. He suggested that in the interest of equity, Chilmark should pay $5,000 into a pool for each of its students enrolled in the school.

"The Chilmark School is currently not an efficient operation," he said.

Mr. Doty objected to the idea, arguing that his town already shoulders the majority of the Chilmark School budget since the cost-sharing formula assesses each town based on the number of residents attending the school.

"Chilmark has the most students in the most expensive site, and we pay most of the costs," he said.

Mr. Sederholm steered the discussion away from money concerns and focused on the benefit of an educational alternative in the region.

"I don't believe education is about dollars and cents," he said. "The Chilmark School provides a unique option for the children of the district, including West Tisbury. It's very small ... and gives a sense of community that's severely lacking at the West Tisbury School."

But Mr. DeVito took aim at that logic, arguing simply that if the Chilmark School was such an attractive option, enrollment would be higher. He pointed out that 30 per cent of the children in Chilmark who could attend their town school go elsewhere, and in Aquinnah, that figure is even higher, at 60 per cent.

"If the educational value were so universally in demand, more people from the Island would go there," said Mr. DeVito. "It's unfortunate that the idea of the Chilmark School cannot generate enough people to make economic sense, but people have to be able to afford to live on the Island. It's very hard to do if taxes keep going up."