Tisbury to Pay More, and Oak Bluffs Less Under Regional School Funding Scenario

By IAN FEIN

A state-driven shift in how regional school districts fund themselves could penalize Tisbury and benefit Oak Bluffs by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The state rules use wealth rather than enrollment to determine how much each member town of a regional school district is assessed.

Vineyard school officials have calculated that, if the state's wealth-based formula were in place for the current fiscal year, the town of Tisbury would have paid an additional $315,000 for the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, while Oak Bluffs taxpayers would have saved roughly $390,000.

The numbers, which were recently distributed among Island towns, have drawn some attention.

"Obviously, I'm very concerned," said Tristan Israel, chairman of the Tisbury selectman. "If in fact this type of thing takes place, it will really strain our financial position."

"Would we support the wealth-based formula if it saved Oak Bluffs taxpayers money?" asked Oak Bluffs finance committee chairman Peter Palches. "I think we would say yes."

Under the same formula, Chilmark and West Tisbury each would have paid almost another $100,000 to the high school district, while Aquinnah would have saved about $75,000 and Edgartown a little more than $40,000.

Set to take effect this spring, the changes would require that regional school districts throughout the commonwealth use a wealth-based formula as the usual way to divvy up school finances, rather than the existing enrollment-based agreements that formed the districts. The districts, however, can choose to retain the use of enrollment for determining finances should every member town agree.

The state board of education is accepting comments on the pending regulations through Oct. 27. And though the proposed amendments are drawing a lot of heat, state education officials note that the changes reflect existing state law, which until this point has gone largely unenforced.

In the Education Reform Act of 1993, the Massachusetts state legislature declared that wealthier towns should pay a larger share of public education costs than less affluent ones. According to that law, any one town within a regional district could demand that the schools used a wealth formula, which is based on a combination of property values and statistics, rather than the existing agreements, which often rely on enrollment numbers.

The frequently overlooked provision has led to conflicts among neighboring towns in the commonwealth and is already shaping up to be a major issue for the Vineyard's other regional district, the Up-Island Regional School District.

Aquinnah selectmen are holding a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday to decide whether the town should pursue the wealth-based formula for the district. If the wealth formula had been in place for the current Up-Island Regional School District budget, Aquinnah taxpayers would have saved more than $90,000, while West Tisbury would have paid an extra $70,000 and Chilmark an additional $25,000.

Mr. Israel expressed concern this week that the high school may be drawn unwillingly into the funding fray that has ensnared other regional districts throughout the state.

"I hope this isn't going to start pitting one community against another, and it sure looks like that could be an unintended effect," Mr. Israel said. "In every other instance where we've had a regional agreement, they've asked for a majority of towns to vote something to make a change. If in fact this is true that it now only takes one community to make a change, I think that really undermines the integrity of being part of a regional body."

Mr. Palches said that while he had some concerns about the accuracy of the state's income statistics, he strongly supported the concept of a wealth-based formula as the proper way to calculate school costs.

"People who have the ability to pay for the school should be paying for it," Mr. Palches said. "And I think Oak Bluffs is already supporting the regional school inordinately, simply by having it within our borders and not having it as a source of tax revenue."

Amelia Tierney, the financial assistant to the Vineyard schools superintendent, noted that the published numbers only represent the potential impact to the current year's budget, and that the actual differences would likely fluctuate from year to year. She said that no one reason could explain why the potential Tisbury and Oak Bluffs payments changed so much, but that it reflected a combination of the many factors included in the state formula.

Mrs. Tierney is attending a meeting of the state superintendent's association tomorrow where a state education commissioner will discuss the regional funding regulations. She added that while no one is certain how the changes will play out in the months ahead, all six towns on the Vineyard might agree to stick with the existing enrollment formula.

Duncan Ross, the chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen and a former longtime high school teacher, said yesterday that he supported taking a regional approach.

"I have always tried to look at Martha's Vineyard as a whole, and not as six separate pieces of a pie," Mr. Ross said. "I would like to see the outcome of this as something that is beneficial and fair to all of the Island, not just the people of Oak Bluffs."