To the Editor:
I am writing in reference to the October 31 article by Janet Hefler, entitled “Architects offer six design options for Tisbury school building.” She quoted me several times, but did not include the complete range of information I presented, some of which I will add here.
The plan, as currently envisioned, is to enlarge the school by nearly 71 percent or build a new school that is 87,000 square feet. As it sits today, Tisbury School is 51,000 square feet.
Why must the school be enlarged? The New England School Development Council (NESDC) estimates we will have a projected enrollment of 386 students in five years. The current count is 326. I spoke with superintendent of schools James Weiss on November 16, to see what criteria the NESDC used in their formula. While on the surface it makes sense for the overall state, it does not translate well to our Island. For instance, one data point used is new housing starts. We are primarily a second home market with 60 percent of our population seasonal. So, using that in a formula would yield inaccurate results.
In researching enrollment, Christine Flynn, the economic development person on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, provided me with data on enrollment from 2001-02 through the 2007-08 school year. Tisbury had a high of 339 students for the 2001- 02 term and a low of 273 in 2006-07. Ms. Hefler quoted the NESDC in an article dated October 15, 2009. She wrote “School Enrollment Decline Steepens Slightly.” In 2008, the NESDC predicted “school enrollment would remain flat, growing slightly from 2008 – 2012.” If anything, things are harder today than in 2008. Not really conducive to young families moving or staying here.
Over a decade, with the fluctuations, our student population is less then 2001. Yet, somehow, we are going to add 60 students in the next five years. No one questioned that at the meeting. That was my first objection to the building plan. The projected student population growth would appear to be based on flawed data.
The second area was the plan/design itself. At the meeting, each potential area for enlargement was individually addressed by me. Several of them I agree with, including the need for increased space for special education, nurse/medical area, and cafeteria. Other suggested increases, while in agreement for some expansion, the recommended size, per the Massachusetts School Building Authority, seemed excessive and outlandish is several circumstances.
According to their standards, the principal should have a 387-square-foot office. Mr. Custer’s office is 197 square feet. I asked him, at the meeting, if he needed that additional area, and he stated, “I am not in the office that much.” The custodial/maintenance area goes from zero to 1,924 square feet. Why? Five hundred square feet, sure, nearly four times that amount, no. The gym is to double in size, from 5,026 square feet to 10,350 square feet, without a stage. The enlarged gymnasium is to allow for the throngs of fans to attend sporting events. We barely fill it now for town meeting.
The cafeteria does need improvement and augmentation, there is no doubt about that, but more than 300 percent larger? Even with the stage area, moved from the gymnasium, the space is inordinately large.
Our classrooms are considered small by the powers that be at the MSBA. They average 739 square feet. Their recommendation is for 914 square feet, and the school committee is suggesting 960.5 square feet. Again, why? We were/are a blue ribbon school and got there with the “small” classrooms. Our children enjoy a student to teacher ratio of 8.7 to 1 compared to a state average of 13.9, a number gleaned from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education website. Should we fire teachers to be at the state average?
Of course no price tag was given. That will be disclosed at the meeting on December 4, at 3 pm, in the Vineyard Haven Library. One scenario is a new school. If you use $500 a square foot and a completely new school is erected, the cost would be $43,000,000. That would be the most expensive building to date on the Island, more than the hospital. Even if the price per square foot was half that amount, it would be the third most costly project ever constructed on the Island. The hospital and the two bridge solution are in the number one and two places.
Once this enormous white elephant edifice is in place, even being energy efficient, it will cost more to run and maintain. Additional staff will most likely be needed to maintain it. There is no reimbursement from the state for those costs. Even with money from the MSBA, we would be on the hook for probably half. So, we are talking a huge amount of money we, the taxpayers in Tisbury, will be paying.
It just seems strange to me that we have a smaller student population today than in 2001, and we want to build/renovate the school to be 71 percent larger. This is our money and our decision. Putting an enormous amount of money into a new or renovated structure as proposed makes no sense at all.
Our concern should be keeping our teachers up to date with the latest teaching methods and teaching tools. Investing in people not a building would seem the best way to get our children a superior education. We need to do some improvements/renovations to the Tisbury School, but let’s control the process and not do what we are told by some nebulous bureaucratic organization, just because they will cover part of the price tag.