Change Eyed in School Pact

Up-Island Regional Agreement Could See a Major Overhaul if Aquinnah Has Its Way; Cost Remains the Issue

By IAN FEIN

With tensions brewing and the fate of the Up-Island Regional School District back in the spotlight, the regional school committee will meet twice next week to consider changes to the agreement that formed the district. And after the release of two separate financial studies about the district this spring, school committee members are feeling pressure from opposing fronts.

The West Tisbury finance committee, longtime critics of the regional formula that determines how costs are shared between the three towns in the district, is requesting that Chilmark taxpayers contribute an additional $500,000 to cover the costs of the Chilmark School. Meanwhile, officials in Aquinnah want to change the agreement to reflect a formula recommended by the state, which could increase the costs to West Tisbury taxpayers by more than $250,000.

School committee members will take up the regional formula at their own meeting on Monday, two days before a scheduled confab with the West Tisbury selectmen and finance committee. Should the school committee recommend adjustments to the regional agreement, those amendments still would need voter approval at all three up-Island town meetings before they can take effect.

Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss acknowledged that the conflicting interests of different towns pose a difficult dilemma for the regional committee, but he expressed confidence that committee members are up to the task.

"I think they understand what needs to be done, and I'm hopeful they can come up with some way to revise the formula to make it more equitable," Mr. Weiss said. "I'm not convinced that we can ever make everyone happy, but I think at this point we have to take a look at it and do the best we can do."

The up-Island towns joined together in 1993 to form the regional district, which includes both the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools. School officials maintain that the regional structure offers both financial and educational benefits to the three member towns, but the West Tisbury finance committee has long argued that its taxpayers carry an unfair share of the burden.

The up-Island discord mirrors debate about regional school districts across the commonwealth. With a decrease in incentives and overall state funding, regional districts elsewhere in the state also face conflicts over cost allocation.

When threats to dissolve the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District on the Cape heightened last year, state Rep. Clean H. Turner of Barnstable formed a regional school caucus to explore the issue. The caucus held several meetings across the state last fall, and finished its report three weeks ago. Still in the process of being distributed to state representatives and regional school superintendents, the report recommends new state legislation to improve the prospect of regional schools.

Some of the language in the report echoes the up-Island debate:

"Regional schools provide the best educational opportunities for many communities that would be unable to afford broad-based education if not for a partnership with neighboring communities," the report says.

"If the state wishes to encourage regionalization in the future, it may need to deal with its history of failing to keep pace with promised incentives, in failing to see the differences in regional schools, and in creating a situation that pits towns within regions against each other," the report continues. "The loud and clear message from caucus participants has been that the state needs to renew its previous commitment to regionalization, or else risk more regions dissolving."

The up-Island schools district may prove to be a hot topic in the state election on the Vineyard this fall. All five school committee positions will appear on the November ballot, and the two West Tisbury members who are most supportive of the district, Katherine Logue and Diane Wall, have both stated that they are not seeking reelection. As of yesterday, no challengers had taken out papers to run. Completed nomination papers must be submitted to the up-Island town clerks by July 25.

Although the fate of the up-Island district is still uncertain, the West Tisbury finance committee is no longer actively calling for its town to pull out of the district. And in fact two studies released this spring suggested that withdrawing from the district would be disadvantageous to the town.

The first, a joint effort among the three towns that was more than two years in the making, found that the up-Island cost allocation formula is substantially fair. The consultant, Abrahams Group of Framingham, recommended only minor changes to the formula, such as incorporating enrollment numbers for the school choice program and the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.

But the West Tisbury finance committee, unhappy that the original report did not study the potential impacts of closing the Chilmark School, commissioned its own consultant, Hawkins, Kelley and Associates of Rhode Island, whose final report was released last month. The finance committee report warned against withdrawing from the district, but also found that the closure of the Chilmark School would save the district roughly $900,000.

Acknowledging that Chilmark town officials have no intention of closing their school, the finance committee is now asking West Tisbury selectmen to negotiate funding changes with their neighbors to the west. As stated in recent meetings, West Tisbury finance committee members believe the small elementary school on Beetlebung Corner is an unnecessary amenity for Chilmark families, and that taxpayers of that town should therefore cover its costs. They note that per-pupil costs at the Chilmark School are among the highest in the state.

Aquinnah town officials, meanwhile, have latched onto findings in the original Abrahams report that the regional funding formula recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Education could result in substantial cost savings for their town. The formula, currently used by roughly half the regional school districts in the state, is based on property values and income instead of enrollment.

West Tisbury town officials first raised questions about the state formula last spring, thinking it might offer savings for their town. But based on numbers from the 2003-2004 school year, the Abrahams report found that the recommended formula would have saved Aquinnah $160,000 and Chilmark $110,000, while forcing West Tisbury to make up the $270,000 difference.

According to the regional school caucus report, any town in a regional school district can unilaterally void the original district agreement and switch the cost allocations to the recommended state formula. Aquinnah selectmen stated in a letter last month that they will pursue the state formula.