Chilmark residents voted down the town's share of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School operating budget at annual town meeting Monday, the second town to do so in protest of the school’s ongoing lawsuit over an artificial turf field.

Following in West Tisbury’s footsteps, Chilmark voters amended the high school budget line from $1.06 million to zero. If a third town rejects the budget, the district will have to take the budget back to the school committee and come up with a new one.

Robert Lionette, a Chilmark resident and the chair of the regional high school school committee, made the motion to vote against the budget because of the lawsuit, though he acknowledged that high school prinicipal Sara Dingledy and her staff had otherwise done a "great job" with the financial plan. 

Chilmark resident and regional high school committee member Robert Lionette made the motion to vote down the school budget. — Ray Ewing

The vote against the budget passed 114-71 after more than an hour of debate.

The school has been pursuing an artificial turf field as part of a revamp of the high school’s athletic facility.

The project, which also includes a new track and renovating several grass fields, was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in June 2021, but was later rejected by the Oak Bluffs planning board due to concerns over chemicals from the field potentially harming the area’s water quality.

The school then sued the town board, claiming the project was exempt from local zoning under state law.

Earlier this month, West Tisbury voters rejected the town’s portion of the regional high school operating budget in protest of the school’s continued legal spending on the turf suit.

If four towns approve the high school budget, the school isn’t required to make a change. Tisbury’s town meeting is Tuesday and Aquinnah is next month.

Susan Murphy, the chair of the Chilmark finance committee, said the school did a fabulous job from a fiscal standpoint on the budget, but she hadn’t realized that the school committee would later decide to take away a spending cap on the turf lawsuit.

The school committee initially committed $30,000 to the legal fight, but after learning that attorney fees had outstripped the initial estimate by more than $4,000, the high school committee voted earlier this month to continue funding the lawsuit until its conclusion.

Principal Dingledy stood up at the meeting and stated that a “no” vote would hurt school operations.

“The operating budget is a symbol of the fight but will not resolve the fight,” she said. “[This] will result in programmatic and staff cuts.”

Schools superintendent Richie Smith stands up for the school budget. — Ray Ewing

Superintendent Richie Smith made a similar overture to voters, saying a rejection “could possibly threaten the daily work that we do with our children.”

“There are other ways to send a message to the school committee,” he said.

Some voters were not in support of voting the budget down, either.

“I think it’s foolish to take a flamethrower to the high school budget,” said board of health member Matt Poole.

A new wrinkle developed in the turf fight late last week, when the school committee scheduled an executive session to talk about potential settlement proposals. The meeting was scheduled for Monday, but was canceled without explanation on Sunday.

Mr. Lionette did not respond to a request for comment earlier Monday on why the meeting did not happen as originally scheduled.

Select board member Warren Doty talks to residents. Mr. Doty is not seeking reelection after 24 years on the board. — Ray Ewing

The rest of the town's budget, which was projected to be $13.5 million before the amendment to the school spending, passed, as did a $2.2 debt exclusion for facilities upgrades at the Chilmark School. The debt exclusion, which will cover the costs for a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the school, will also need to be approved at the ballot.

Voters also agreed to chip in on a $2 million feasibility study to look at renovating or replacing the aging regional high school building and approved a new funding agreement for the project. All six Island towns have been asked to help cover the costs of the study and sign on to the new regional agreement. Both haved passed in all four towns that have held their town meetings so far. 

A petition article that would have allowed for four liquor licenses in Chilmark, the last remaining dry town on the Vineyard, was indefinitely postponed.

Monday’s town meeting in Chilmark was a packed affair. Additional chairs needed to be brought in and there was a line out the door more than 10 minutes after town meeting was scheduled to start.

The meeting, having no trouble reaching a quorum of 25 voters, was called to order at 7:12 p.m. and ended at 10:19 p.m. There was a total of 216 people present.

Warren Doty, at his last town meeting as a select board member before Wednesday’s election, received a standing ovation for his 24 years of service to the town.

"It's been a privilege," Mr. Doty told the crowd at the start of town meeting. "Now it's time for someone else to sit in this seat."