Voters in West Tisbury Decide Against School District Pullout

By IAN FEIN

In a strong show of support for the value of regional education, West Tisbury voters at their annual town meeting this week opted to stay in the Up-Island Regional School District and fully fund their share of the $7.5 million district budget.

The two votes went against the recommendations of the town finance committee, which has long been a critic of district finances.

Finance committee members on Tuesday night lobbied for withdrawing from the region and cutting this year's budget by roughly $380,000 districtwide. They asked voters to send a message to the school district, which is among the most costly in the commonwealth and has seen a steadily rising budget despite declining enrollment.

But West Tisbury voters rejected that notion and said they were willing to continue to fund their schools. They agreed with school officials that the educational benefits of the regional district outweighed the financial costs.

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"I have come to believe that the strongest thing we can do is remain in the district," said town resident and longtime West Tisbury School teacher Fran Finnigan, who noted that the last time she spoke at a town meeting was more than a decade ago, when she opposed forming the regional school district. "In the preceding years, I have found that the region is a stronger, more independent entity. It's greater than the sum of its parts."

The school debate dominated much of the four-hour-plus meeting on Tuesday night, which did not let out until after 11 p.m. A sizable group of school parents, including a few mothers with young children on their laps, helped constitute a near-record turnout of 315 residents, or more than 15 per cent of registered voters.

The night represented a significant loss for the finance committee, as voters brushed aside all four of their countervailing recommendations. Committee members failed on their two school arguments, as well as attempts to lower salary hikes for town employees and the Island Councils on Aging budget.

Characteristic to West Tisbury, which has the highest average property tax bill on the Cape and Islands, voters went on a shopping spree of sorts this week, approving every spending request on the 45-article warrant, as well as the $12.8 million annual town budget.

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Voters also committed to a direction for their town hall, strongly supporting a recommendation from the space needs committee to renovate the existing building instead of constructing a new one elsewhere in town. Selectmen will now appoint a building committee, which will have $150,000 to develop architectural plans for the project and prepare it for bids.

The project received some opposition from residents who said the roughly $5 million renovation price tag was too high, and others who argued that the recommendation fell outside the purview of the space needs committee. The committee was created by a vote of the annual town meeting last spring, after voters put to rest an earlier renovation plan that went well over budget.

Town officials on Tuesday maintained that the renovation project was in the best interests of the town, and added that the committee held dozens of public meetings throughout the year.

"We've been working on this [project] for more than a decade, and I think we finally arrived at a process that allowed for real community participation," said longtime selectman John Early, who was honored at the start of the meeting on Tuesday for his 30 years of service on the West Tisbury board. "What I'm concerned about is not only the cost of the building, but the people who have been working inside in substandard conditions for a really long time."

Space needs committee chairman Charles Hodgkinson noted that the town administrative offices moved into the existing town hall in 1978, Mr. Early's first year as a selectman. He suggested that town residents had a duty to care for the historic three-story building, which first opened as a school in the 1870s.

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"Whether we like it or not, it's on our shoulders to decide what to do with that building," Mr. Hodgkinson said. "It has been used by six generations of West Tisbury residents. And I think it's wrong to take it away from the next six."

Along with the town hall and regional school district, West Tisbury voters took up some other familiar topics on Tuesday.

They rejected for the second time a proposed bylaw that would prohibit townspeople from holding multiple town offices, and also approved $80,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for a new path along Old County Road, but not before it sparked a long debate about the appropriate size, location and appearance of such paths. The discussion echoed a special town meeting in December, when voters expressed similar misgivings before spending $190,000 for a mile-long path on Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

In other business, a proposal to begin the process of creating an Island energy conservation district passed with virtually no discussion or opposition.

The Up-Island Regional School District, however, was a central focus of discussion. The meeting offered a platform for the long-simmering standoff between regional school officials and the West Tisbury finance committee, with each side giving lengthy presentations to defend their side. Finance committee chairman Alexander DeVito grounded his case in numbers - based on per-pupil expenses and possible savings from certain steps - while Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss listed academic achievements of up-Island students and said that cutting funding or breaking apart the district would drastically impair the quality of their education.

More than one voter complained about the divide between the two camps, and suggested that the truth lay somewhere in between.

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Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, also a member of the town finance and regional school committees, noted on Tuesday that a town meeting vote to withdraw would not take immediate effect and would require a second vote later in the year if the other member towns did not agree. He suggested that voters could send a message to school administrators and the other towns without doing irreparable harm.

But the voters for the large part did not seem to agree.

"I think it would be a terrible slap in the face to Chilmark," said town resident and Martha's Vineyard Commission member Linda Sibley, who noted that the finance committee's objections to the cost of the Chilmark School lay at the heart of the issue.

Other residents also warned of unintended consequences from such a vote.

"What if Chilmark and Aquinnah said good riddance? That's not a risk we want to run," said town treasurer and former school committee member Katherine Logue. "Like our federal government, we have no exit strategy."

The topic of withdrawal is not new to West Tisbury voters, who faced a similar article in 2004 and a nonbinding ballot question in 2005.

Regional school committee member Daniel Cabot on Tuesday asked voters to put the issue to rest once and for all.

"We've been here before, and we can be at this forever," Mr. Cabot said. "The whole thing is a rat's nest."