West Tisbury Stays in District, Approves Spending Increases

By CHRIS BURRELL

In the end, it was all about distrusting the numbers. Against a backdrop of confusion over whether exiting the Up-Island Regional School District would save money or cost money, West Tisbury voters this week demanded an independent cost analysis.

The debate at annual town meeting took nearly an hour and a half, but the momentum rarely swayed from the sentiment that even one step toward withdrawal from the district was too drastic an action without a firm grasp of the cost implications.

"We have three different estimates of the cost to withdraw, and they're wildly different," said resident Bruce MacNelly. "It doesn't make sense to plunge in when we don't know the cost. Let's have an independent look at it."

Voters backed an amended proposal that called for the creation of a regional committee from the three up-Island towns and the hiring of a consultant to analyze the cost-sharing formula in the school district which comprises Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury. The proposal was penned by selectman John Early.

Town meeting drew 299 voters on a night of windswept rain. Turnout represented 15 per cent of the town's registered voters, and they were a stalwart lot, staying until 11:30 p.m. to complete action on all 41 proposals on the warrant.

While the question of school secession dominated discussion, voters also threw their support behind a new wetlands protection bylaw and endorsed a resolution declaring their displeasure with the federal Patriot Act.

Both on town meeting floor and again yesterday at the ballot, voters went on a spending spree, signing on for a general tax override of $242,000 plus another $1.3 million in overrides for new sidewalks, roads, tennis courts and paramedic equipment and training.

Voters approved an annual operating budget of $10.8 million, an eight per cent increase over this year's base budget of $10,066,306.

Money worries spurred the West Tisbury finance committee members to turn up the pressure on voters to withdraw from the school district. Citing dwindling state educational aid, lagging enrollment and high per-pupil costs at the Chilmark School, the finance board has hammered for the last three months on its position that pulling out would save taxpayers money - nearly $200,000 a year.

But school leaders calculated a negative impact from withdrawal - increased costs of more than $600,000, they said, later reducing the estimate to $300,000.

Tuesday night, finance committee chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter - who also serves as a town police sergeant, a selectman and member of the up-Island school board - argued for withdrawal and against any new committees charged with weighing out cost-sharing in the three-town district.

"Two years ago, an article [to leave the district] was withdrawn because of promises school officials would work on it. Now we're looking at another committee. This has dragged on long enough," said Mr. Manter. A school task force formed two years ago had made little headway.

This week, finance committee members stood in the foyer of the West Tisbury School and handed out pamphlets that detailed their analysis of spiraling costs, stagnant enrollment and an average per-pupil cost of $17,541 - the highest on the Island.

But the pitch from the finance committee ran into more than one rough patch on town meeting floor. From the outset, there was voter skepticism over the numbers. Then, school leadership injected more doubt in the minds of voters, informing them that a vote to withdraw could lead quickly to dissolution - rather than more debate - if Aquinnah, Chilmark and the up-Island school committee were to follow with their own action allowing the withdrawal. (Barring such action by the school board and the other two towns, West Tisbury would have to wait another six months before affirming a decision to split off from the district.)

The other setback for the finance committee came when their request for a secret ballot on the withdrawal question was shot down.

Patricia Moore said she was troubled by the suggestion. "We've been able, as a town, to speak to educational issues, to talk over deep disagreements. I'd hate to think we can't do that anymore," she said.

Ms. Moore is the professional mediator hired by selectmen two years ago to help smooth over friction in town hall in the aftermath of a close selectman's race which ended Cynthia Mitchell's tenure on the board of selectmen.

Linda Sibley called on voters to "stand up and be counted" without fear of recrimination.

Finance committee member Peter Costas, an outspoken advocate for withdrawal from the school region, argued that some voters would be intimidated. "It's a very hot issue," he said. "Not everyone is wired in such a way that they want to stand and be counted."

But the call for a secret ballot - which would have eaten up considerable time - failed on a voice vote.

Discussion quickly returned to an amendment introduced by former school committee member Anna Alley, who lobbied for a new committee from the three towns to weigh out the cost formula.

"Voting to withdraw from the region is like deciding to divorce without trying to work out the problem," she said.

Voters warmed to the idea of gathering more information. Town treasurer Kathy Logue - also chairman of the up-Island school committee - said efforts to solve the problem with the finance and school committees had failed.

Mr. Manter countered that a vote to withdraw would force school leadership to correct inequities.

But it was Frank Ferro's comments that marked a turning point. "I oppose Anna's amendment, but I would support a review by an independent, qualified person," he said. "Take a look at the issues and come back to us with data we can trust."

It was 9 p.m., a full hour into the debate, and applause greeted his pronouncement.

Finance committee member Sharon Estrella was hurt by the rhetoric, taking note of the atmosphere of distrust for her committee's findings. "For all the work we've done, this is hard to hear," she said. "This is going backwards again. . . . I feel bad people would consider this."

Another resident, Robert Murphy, blasted selectmen for not explaining the issue to voters. "Nobody here understands the problem," he said.

Mr. Costas made one last plea. "If we vote to withdraw, I doubt seriously if Chilmark and Aquinnah will vote us out. Fiscally, it would be very irresponsible of them," he said.

He ended his comment with a rally cry, challenging selectmen, the school committee and finance committee to come up with reliable numbers. Again, more applause erupted from the voters. Mrs. Alley's amendment then failed on a voice vote.

Mr. Early chose this moment to offer a resolution that would soon become the successful amendment - the creation of a nine-member committee made up of three members from each town. Their task would be to hire a consultant to analyze per-pupil costs, determine inequities and recommend adjustments.

The selectman's amendment also called for enrollment and cost projections and a fast-track process to produce all the data. Town moderators would appoint the committee by May 25, and the consultant would file a report in October.

The only question was how to pay for it. Mr. Early's quick rejoinder brought laughter, proving that the long debate had not soured either camp. "We could go to the finance committee for a reserve fund transfer," he said.

Even Mr. Manter broke into a wide grin at the suggestion. Moderator Pat Gregory allayed concerns, suggesting that voters could authorize money for a consultant at the next special town meeting.

Bill Haynes tried to convince voters they should back Mr. Early's amendment while also supporting a second article for withdrawal from the district. That proposal landed on the warrant by voter petition.

"Let's pass this amendment and the next article vote to get out," said Mr. Haynes. "We're holding a big stick. If we do both, I think we'll be covered."

Mrs. Alley then pushed for passage of the newly amended article, emphasizing the regional approach. "These are our neighbors, whose children come to this school," she said. "We must work with them."

Mr. Early's amendment passed easily. Voters then balked, quickly deciding that coupling Mr. Early's compromise with a vote to withdraw from the district would send the wrong message.

Again, Mr. Ferro seemed to sum up the mood of the room. "I'm torn about this, but I would like West Tisbury selectmen to make very clear to Chilmark and Aquinnah selectmen that this has been a very intense conversation, that if you can't resolve this issue to our satisfaction, the specter of withdrawal is still very much alive," he said.

The second measure calling for secession from the school district failed decisively.

Wetlands Bylaw

In other town meeting action, voters backed a tough new wetlands bylaw offering additional protection to buffer zones and vernal pools which serve as habitat for rare species. Conservation commission chairman Judy Crawford led the presentation, pointing out that West Tisbury was the only Vineyard town lacking its own set of wetlands bylaws.

It was 10 p.m., three hours into the town meeting, but voters proved their democratic mettle by posing tough questions. What about the appeals process and the fees charged for consultants, they asked.

Mr. Costas, still going strong after the lengthy school discourse, argued that sending aggrieved applicants to superior court would end up costing the town money in legal bills. Mrs. Crawford disagreed, saying that this track in other towns across the commonwealth had not run up legal costs.

Paul Schneider urged passage. "Look at Chatham, where they acted too late," he said. "We deserve to have the same water protection as they have on the rest of the Island. We have a Great Pond that's really on the edge."

The vote rang out loudly in favor of the new conservation bylaw.

But issues around land acquisition stirred up controversy. Selectman Glenn Hearn introduced a request for $25,000 to cover appraisal and title research on nearly 150 acres of private land that town leaders are considering for purchase or an eminent domain taking.

The land could be used for elderly and affordable housing, open space or an expansion of the business district, said Mr. Hearn. But both Jonathan Revere and Mrs. Estrella questioned the move.

"We have town buildings we can't take care of," said Mrs. Estrella. "Why does West Tisbury want to go into real estate?"

Voters approved the spending request, then found themselves in another thicket when asked to commit $2,000 toward an appraisal of easement rights to Stephen's Cross Path, which lies between State Road and the landfill.

Two neighbors objected while a third, Christine Wiley, said a path easement would enable children to access a trail from State road all the way to the school on Old County Road. This measure also passed.

Voters rallied in their opposition to the Patriot Act but stopped short of turning their defiance into a town bylaw. Town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport advised voters that codifying their resistance to the federal law ran the risk of putting town employees in a legal bind.

"Public employees could be subject to criminal penalties," he said. Voters postponed action on the measure and then gave their strong support to a resolution objecting to elements of the Patriot Act that threaten the civil rights and civil liberties of residents.

Like most town meetings in West Tisbury, there were a handful of women who brought their knitting gear along so they could add some stitches while doing their democratic duty. But the skeins and needles weren't all that set West Tisbury apart from some other town meetings.

Abigail Higgins stood up to question a slew of money requests for computers and software. "Frequently there's large expenditure for computer tools for the town," she said. "Are we becoming overly dependent? Can we run the town without computer systems?"

And when police chief Beth Toomey asked for $3,500 to match a drug enforcement grant aimed at surveillance and enforcement, the request passed but not without a sizable volume of voices saying nay.

Voters backed all spending measures on town meeting floor, but trimmed back the shopping list when they came to the polling booth in yesterday's annual town election.

Spending measures approved include:

* A decision to borrow $1,090,000 to pay for repaving more than 11 miles of town roads - Music street, the Panhandle, Old County Road, South Indian Hill Road and Old Stage Road.

* $32,000 to equip and train paramedics.

* $75,000 to extend sidewalks in the North Tisbury business district all the way to Humphrey's. Two crosswalks are included since the sidewalk will alternate on both the east and west sides of State Road.

* $70,000 toward the purchase of a new brush breaker firetruck.

The overrides and debt exclusion will increase taxes on a $450,000 house by nearly $300 next year.

West Tisbury Voters Reelect John Early and Approve Eleven Override Questions