The 50 year-old regional high school agreement remains intact, but the trust that has been its mortar for decades may be broken.
Following a special town meeting vote in Chilmark last week, the cost of operating the regional high school, for the first time in school history will be divided among the six Island towns based on a state formula, rather than the enrollment-based formula spelled out in the regional agreement.
Some say the spirit of regional cooperation among Island towns has been permanently damaged by the last 10 months of infighting and confusion over the state's so-called statutory assessment method, imposed this year for the first time.
Some say a retooled local agreement will emerge from the ashes - the effort of a new committee created to identify the fairest method of assessment.
Others say it's not even worth trying.
State law requires unanimous agreement on assessments among member towns in a regional school district when the method used is anything other than the state formula. If the state formula is used, a two thirds majority - in this case four of the six member towns - must approve their assessments in order to ratify the high school budget.
"What's the point of wasting time trying to come up with another formula that would still take six towns to vote?" Edgartown selectmen Arthur Smadbeck said yesterday. "We're never going to get six towns because if there's an advantage to one town or another town, they're not going to vote [for it]."
The Edgartown selectmen declined to send a representative to the recently formed committee that will examine other possible assessment methods. Every other town on the Island appointed one selectman and one finance committee member to the committee, which met for the first time last Wednesday.
Some local leaders are optimistic that a good idea backed by strong leadership could gain favor among towns.
"Is there an excellent chance we'll come up with something fabulous? Absolutely, when you have a room full of well-intentioned people with a common goal," said Oak Bluffs selectman and board chairman Kerry Scott, who is also her board's appointee to the committee.
But Edgartown's absence at the meeting was distressing to others.
"Without the involvement of all six towns, how can we move forward?" West Tisbury selectman Dianne E. Powers asked her fellow committee members at the meeting.
Some question whether there is adequate leadership to forge a new assessment method.
The statutory method has been criticized across the Island for using outdated data and being incomprehensibly confusing. On top of that the state calculations for school assessments are in the midst of a transition that makes it impossible to know how town assessments will look next year, or in years to come.
Since the numbers the state formula uses are contingent on the state budget - which is certified months after towns hold their annual town meetings - school administrators say the budget process will be delayed and only use best-guess estimates, all subject to change.
"My discouragement for the future is it's going to take so many different approaches to repair the damage that was done this year. I'm concerned that we don't have that many problem solvers. We have a lot of anger. We have a lot of finger pointing," regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said yesterday - the first business day of the new fiscal year. "I don't know whether we have the willingness or capacity to fix it," she added.
Dormant for years, the regional agreement has been at the center of a chain of events that concluded with last week's special town meetings. In April, the town of Oak Bluffs voted to reject its school assessment based on the regional agreement's method, opting for the statutory method that would save the town over $440,000. In turn, assessments in Chilmark, Edgartown, Tisbury and West Tisbury increased by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It's basically the oldest regional document on the Island - it has stood the test of time - and it has taken a bit of a whacking," Edgartown school committee member Leslie Baynes said yesterday. "I don't know how much damage it has done to us in working in a regional and cooperative manner. Will we be able to move forward and grow or is there an element of mistrust?"
At last week's meeting of the new assessment committee, Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss suggested coming up with mock town assessments under four different methods that are all combinations of two factors: student enrollment and equalized property valuations - one way of calculating a town's wealth.
School committee members say that any alternative assessment method would need ample public support for the school committee to stray from the statutory formula. Alternative assessment methods are subject to the one-town veto power, as some have termed it.
"In my opinion, that's the crux of it, because no matter what agreement the towns come up with, the statutory formula can be imposed any time one town wants to," West Tisbury selectman and school committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said yesterday.
"We really have to see what direction this committee takes," he continued. "If they can come up with some reasonable middle ground, that might be what we're certifying [next year]."
Mr. Baynes wondered whether in the future the regional agreement should attach consequences to any breach - including possibly the loss of membership in the region.
"There are other benefits of membership," Mr. Baynes said, citing the shared costs of special education, English language learners and low income students, as well as the ability to not have a high school in every town. "What if the people had said [to Oak Bluffs], you don't belong to this club anymore?"
Another deterrent to developing a new local assessment method is the promise from Cape and Islands lawmakers that the Vineyard towns financially hurt by the statutory formula will be compensated - at least in part - from a state fund known as the pothole fund. And since the statutory formula transition period is expected to end in a formula that is relatively similar to the enrollment-based formula the Island used for decades, some argue this is another reason not to bother coming up with a local alternative.
"I'm not optimistic," Chilmark selectman J.B. Riggs Parker said of the new committee's chance of success. "I think the state's interference in the regional agreement has set regional agreements back by many, many years. I think it was an unnecessary and destructive thing for [the state] to do. And I'm disappointed that our legislature ignored the problem until they were pressed by the towns."
But not one to be defeatist, he added: "I would love to be surprised and have this all work out."