West Tisbury School Debate a Focus of Meeting

By CHRIS BURRELL

The line-up for next week's annual town meeting in West Tisbury is about to test voters' political stamina, math skills and tolerance for spending sprees.

The raging debate over whether the town should withdraw from the up-Island regional school district is expected to drive much of the discussion - but make no mistake, the annual town meeting that starts Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the West Tisbury School gymnasium is going to be a whopper for more reasons than school secession alone.

Voters are looking at more than $1.6 million in tax overrides and borrowing measures to pay for roadwork, sidewalks, a tennis court and a bush-busting firetruck. They'll have to decide whether to pass a strict new bylaw dealing with wetlands [see separate story on Page Eight] and if they want to defy a federal law called the Patriot Act.

The meeting could well flow over into two nights of action, selectmen chairman John Early predicted yesterday.

"It's rare and it seems like ancient history, but I've been involved in some two-nighters," he said. "It very definitely could happen with three big-ticket items: the wetlands, the withdrawal and the Patriot Act."

The warrant is 41 articles long. On Thursday between noon and 8 p.m., voters head to the polls in the public safety building in North Tisbury for the annual town election. Voters will decide two contested races - for selectman and tree warden - and 11 ballot questions, asking for approval of a $242,000 general override plus another $1.3 million in spending.

"It's a fairly substantial shopping list we have, but all of the proposed expenditures . . . are things the town needs," said Mr. Early. "There's not anything frivolous or unnecessary."

Money is at the crux of what will likely be the most time-consuming debate at town meeting: the question of whether withdrawal from the up-Island school region will make the town richer or poorer.

Finance committee members have argued that the cost-sharing formula forces West Tisbury taxpayers to pay more than their fair share of educational costs up-Island. The committee, sponsor of one of two articles calling for secession from the region, believes that pulling out would save the town about $200,000 in the first year.

School leaders, who prepared five fiscal scenarios for breaking up the regional school district, forecasted an entirely different result: a loss of at least $300,000 to the town.

The obvious problem is which set of numbers to believe. And while finance committee members are adamant about their calculations and pushing hard for withdrawal, a new approach calling for a third party to do the math is in the works.

Call for More Study

"We need some kind of outside entity to do this number-crunching, to look at these analyses with off-Island eyes," said Kathy Logue, West Tisbury treasurer and the chairman of the up-Island school committee.

"That would help us to arrive at numbers that everyone could agree on," she added.

Mr. Early said the finance committee, which sat down with selectmen Wednesday, was open to the suggestion.

But finance committee member Peter Costas told the Gazette yesterday that the board still wants to see the vote for withdrawal. Without it, he said, "the pressure will be off and nothing's going to happen."

Ms. Logue said she would urge voters not to make any decision on withdrawal, given the sketchy data on the table.

"What is clear at the moment is that we don't have clear information on which to base a decision, and that is not prudent public policy," she said.

Selectmen agreed this week to ask moderator Pat Gregory to support a secret ballot on the withdrawal proposal.

If West Tisbury residents vote to withdraw, one of two things happens next. If Aquinnah and Chilmark, voting at a town meeting, grant West Tisbury its exit papers, the district is dissolved. Barring that, West Tisbury citizens would have to vote a second time to make it happen, waiting at least six months after their initial vote.

Two Towns Wrangle

The reverberations up-Island have already been significant

West Tisbury finance committee members have pressured Chilmark leaders to kick more money into the regional school budget because their small kindergarten through fifth-grade school has such high per-pupil costs.

Last week, the finance team from West Tisbury even suggested to Chilmarkers that they should consider leaving the regional school district if they don't want to pick up more of the tab for running the Chilmark School.

But the wrangling came back to the calculations. Chilmark finance committee member Doug Sederholm said point-blank he didn't believe either set of numbers.

Ms. Logue tried to steer West Tisbury off the collision course with its neighbor. "It seems to me, talking to people, that Chilmark and Aquinnah have shown a willingness to adjust the formula if it can be demonstrated there's actually an inequity here," she said.

In Mr. Early's view, the anger around West Tisbury's share of school funding in the region also has its roots in unkept promises that a school task force would devise a fairer sharing formula.

"The traction the withdrawal movement has now is at least as much the result of the inaction and failure to proceed with commitments made [by the task force]," said the selectman.

"It's been a difficult fiscal year for the schools. Enrollment is falling, and cuts in state educational aid forced cutbacks in the budgets. The up-Island region is also lobbying legislators to roll back the tuition reimbursement rate paid by the school district when residents of the region opt to attend the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.

The complicated debate around withdrawal could also overshadow this year's general override question asking for $242,000 to help cover school and government costs.

As part of the effort to reach out to taxpayers, the West Tisbury School is hosting an open house Tuesday, inviting people to visit the school and watch classes in action for the day.

Patriot Act Caution

In other town meeting action, voters will be asked to back passage of a new town bylaw that would indemnify town employees who refuse to cooperate with federal and state agents conducting investigations of people under the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts.

Opponents of the Patriot Act believe the law violates civil rights and civil liberties, but yesterday Mr. Early said town counsel has cautioned selectmen that the bylaw could land the town and its employees in hot water with federal powers.

"It's going to be another intensely debated article," said Mr. Early. "And it's quite possibly in contravention of federal law."

Spending articles could also arouse voters, depending on their fiscal moods. Override questions ask voters to pay up: $70,000 for financial software; $32,000 to boost ambulance service to the paramedic level; $65,000 to repair the tennis courts at the school; $75,000 to extend the sidewalk in North Tisbury all the way to the intersection of State and North roads; $70,000 for a brush-breaking firetruck; and $14,000 for the regional housing authority.

If voters approve all nine tax overrides, it would add $157 on to the annual property tax bill for a house valued at $450,000, according to a tax impact analysis prepared by the town treasurer and assessor.

Selectmen are also supporting a $1 million borrowing proposal as a new way to pay for road reconstruction. Taxpayers would pay back the money over ten years.

Mr. Early said that the practice of waiting for state funds to repairs roads means the town can't do a thorough job. "People lose track of the fact that the town has a substantial investment in this infrastructure," he added.