Regional Formula Set for Discussion

State Education Officials Travel Here for Public Meeting on Anticipated Changes in District Assessments

By IAN FEIN

With selectmen across the Vineyard weighing in on expected changes to the way their towns pay for the regional school districts, education officials from Boston will travel to the Island next week to field questions about the state-driven shift.

The officials are hoping to bring clarity to an existing state law that has gone unnoticed on the Vineyard for more than a decade, but will likely play out during town meeting season this spring. Changes under the law - which uses wealth rather than enrollment to determine each town's share of a regional school budget - would cause a significant shift in the financial burden for the various towns that make up the two regional districts on the Vineyard.

According to the state's wealth-based formula, Aquinnah taxpayers this year would have saved more than $160,000 between the Up-Island Regional School District and the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District budgets, while the town of Oak Bluffs would have saved almost $400,000 in its annual contribution to the regional high school.

Tisbury taxpayers, meanwhile, would have owed an additional $310,000 to the high school.

The public meeting - which will feature Cape and Islands state representative Eric T. Turkington and associate education commissioner Jeffrey Wulfson - is set to begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria in the regional high school in Oak Bluffs. A volunteer group of finance committee members from across the Island is sponsoring the forum. Officials from every Vineyard town have been invited to attend.

"These issues are obviously of great interest to both regional school districts and the member towns on the Vineyard," Mr. Wulfson said earlier this week. "And given all the changes that are taking place, we think it's important that local officials understand the formula and have their questions answered."

With the potential to put neighboring communities against one another, the looming changes have been a tense topic of discussion among Island selectmen in recent weeks - particularly up-Island, where the regional school district has been a divisive issue for years.

On Wednesday, high school district committee chairman Susan Parker urged town officials to consider the issue carefully.

"These changes we are facing reflect serious policy choices that the state made more than a decade ago," Mrs. Parker said this week. "I hope our town leaders will study this with open minds."

A Chilmark taxpayer, Mrs. Parker noted that her town this year would have seen the largest percentage increase in education spending under the new formula - owing the two districts an additional $120,000 - but she said she recognized merit in the wealth-based distribution.

"I'm not looking to raise my own taxes," she said, "but I can understand the logic behind this formula."

The changes reflect the state's philosophy on public education - codified in the 1993 Education Reform Act - that wealthier towns should pay a larger share of education costs than less affluent ones. A specific provision in the 1993 state law - unnoticed on the Vineyard and in other parts of the commonwealth - required that regional school districts use the wealth-based formula as the default way to divvy up school finances, unless every member town agreed to use the existing enrollment-based agreements that formed the districts.

Vineyard school administrators only learned of the statutory requirement this summer, after the state department of education proposed regulations that intended to lay out proper procedures for compliance with the law.

Because selectmen in Aquinnah and Oak Bluffs have expressed their preference for the state formula in recent weeks, school administrators are expecting to present wealth-based budgets to town meeting voters this spring - regardless of the pending education department regulations. At a special town meeting later this month, Aquinnah voters will decide whether to officially request wealth-based budgets.

Opponents of the anticipated changes note that even though the existing enrollment formula requires unanimous approval from all member towns, the wealth-based formula still requires two-thirds approval. So if more than one town in the up-Island district, or more than two from the high school district, vote against the wealth-based assessments next spring, a lengthy process of budget resolution will occur that might require a series of special town meetings.

Another concern among Vineyard town officials is the accuracy of the data used in the state formula. The education department calculates each town's wealth through a combination of property values and income statistics. Those numbers were often outdated by as much as a decade, but the state legislature recently enacted changes to ensure the formula uses the most up-to-date data available. This year, the education department used equalized property values from 2004, and personal income data from 2003.

Island officials are concerned that the state gathers income data based on the mailing addresses from income tax returns. Tisbury officials note that residents from a variety of towns maintain post office boxes in Vineyard Haven, potentially skewing the supposed wealth of the town.

Mr. Wulfson this week said the state was aware of the issue, but had not seen any documentation that it actually compromised the numbers. He noted that legislators from the Cape and Islands have lobbied aggressively for the inclusion of income data as well as property values, and that state tax returns represent the best records available to track income.

"Given the pressure to use income data, at the moment we don't think we have anything better to use," Mr. Wulfson said.

Town officials have also acknowledged that the pending changes have the potential to further divide fault lines up-Island, and to unwillingly draw the high school into a similar debate down-Island. Though the subject of bitter debate during its creation in the late 1950s, the Vineyard high school in recent years has been relatively free from the conflict and inter-town quarrels that have plagued other regional districts in the commonwealth, including the small one up-Island.

The West Tisbury finance committee late last month considered authoring a November special town meeting warrant article calling for the town to withdraw from the up-Island district because of the expected budgetary changes, but decided such an action was premature.