Tisbury Finds that Urbanity Can Be Costly

By RACHEL NAVA ROHR

Normally, it would not surprise people to learn that the Tisbury School is no longer considered "rural" enough to qualify for a federal grant called the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP).

But given that 2004 was the first year that the Island's most densely populated towns - Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown - were awarded the REAP grant, and Tisbury alone was the only school district to lose the grant last fall, the loss has raised some eyebrows.

It would seem the federal government believes every school district on the Island is "rural" except Tisbury - even though the 2000 federal census shows the Vineyard's three densest towns have similarly sized populations.

Some have speculated the loss of the grant is due to the post office box mix-up - inaccurate population data generated by the fact so many Islanders keep post office boxes in Vineyard Haven.

The grant coordinator in the Vineyard schools superintendent's office theorized the grant was lost because Tisbury is closest to Falmouth - a more "urban" area.

The Tisbury selectmen half-joked that the lost grant is part of a conspiracy against the town, since Tisbury may also pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more for the regional high school next year if a new state assessment method is used.

The federal Department of Education, however, says it's none of the above.

The grant totaled about $26,000 for the Tisbury School in each of the two years the school received it. In Edgartown, the grant came to more than $40,000 each of those years and is over $50,000 this year. In Oak Bluffs, the grant was over $30,000 each year and is $57,000 this year.

The up-Island regional school district has received $46,000 to $49,000 from the grant every year since 2002; this year it totalled $53,000.

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Unlike many grants, REAP has a broad purpose: helping rural districts comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 by meeting their state's definition of "adequate yearly progress."

This allows school administrators substantial flexibility in how the grant is spent. School districts do not apply or compete for the grant; a district that meets the eligibility requirements automatically is awarded the funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A representative for the department, Elaine Quesinberry, said that although the Tisbury School qualified for the grant in recent years, the National Center for Education Statistics - a subset of the Department of Education - "acquired improved geographic information" that changed the school's "locale code" from seven to six. Seven means "rural outside core based statistical area" and six means "small town."

And in this context, it also means no grant.

It is not clear where this "improved" information came from. The last census was in year 2000 - prior to any of the Island school districts receiving the REAP grant. The National Center for Education Statistics' Web site did say that in 2005 and 2006, the center supported the Census Bureau's work "to redesign the original locale codes in light of changes in the U.S. population and the definition of key geographic concepts."

Another staffer at the Department of Education said that the Tisbury School lost the grant not because Tisbury is near a densely populated area like Falmouth, but because it is, in itself, a densely populated area. 

The staffer, Tai Phan, called this "the Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts Urban Cluster." But according to a map provided by Ms. Quesinberry, this "urban cluster" is not only in Tisbury. The map shows the cluster spanning parts of both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs.

The difference is that the Tisbury School is within the cluster, while Tradewinds Road in Oak Bluffs - where the Oak Bluffs School is located - forms the border of the cluster. The school is on the east side of the road, and therefore outside the cluster.

In other words, eligibility for the REAP grant does not depend on whether the town is rural enough, but whether the school's neighborhood is rural enough. But how the borders of these neighborhoods and clusters are determined is not clear.

The U.S. Census Bureau has its own version of the Tisbury urban cluster.

Although the postal service - a federal entity - does not recognize Tisbury as "Tisbury" and instead refers to the whole town as "Vineyard Haven," the Census Bureau - another federal entity - considers Vineyard Haven a 1.25-square-mile village within the town of Tisbury.

The census classifies Vineyard Haven as a "Census Designated Place," meaning it is a "densely settled area that is locally identified by a name." That locally identified name is presumably Vineyard Haven - unless the bureau asks the postmaster, who would say it's the name of the whole town.

According to year 2000 census data, 55 per cent of Tisbury's population lives in this village of Vineyard Haven, which takes up only 19 per cent of the town's total land area. In all likelihood, this data also is driving the Department of Education's school coding.

The National Center for Education Statistics' Web site indicates that Tisbury is not the only school district whose locale code has changed, although this seems to conflict with the fact three Island school districts did receive REAP grants this school year.

A color-coded map of Martha's Vineyard on the site classifies every town but Edgartown in red, meaning "rural school district changed to non-rural." Edgartown appears dark gray, which means "rural school district remained rural."

Off the southern coast of the Vineyard, Nomans Land (population zero) also is color-coded red.