Disappointing school vote

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Commitment to constructing a $46.6 million replacement for the Tisbury School failed by 21 votes on Tuesday, 567-546. After a six-year planning process, and following on the heels of overwhelming (316-99) approval at town meeting, building committee chair Colleen McAndrews’ summation — “It’s disappointing” — is a marvel of understatement, both with respect to the decision and the narrow margin.

Beyond the frustration on the part of volunteers who labored so diligently, we have a few things to add. The turnout itself, with about 32 percent of registered voters coming to the polls, is low (it was about 37 percent last year). The vote to approve the Proposition 2½ debt exclusion — which represented the 20-year debt the town would take on to pay for the school — passed easily at town meeting, with only 99 “no” votes. At the town election, 567 people voted against the school, suggesting that 468 voters who had not been at town meeting showed up to oppose the measure at the polls, when the new building’s price tag was in the spotlight.

The price, though, was as reasonable as one might expect, especially taking the $14.6 million state grant, which provided a 30 percent discount for taxpayers into account, not to mention the steep subsidy the town receives from nonresident, non school service–receiving taxpayers. As an earlier MV Times editorial in support of the project put it:

 

The reality is that the building committee has been working on ways to keep the project price as low as possible and still meet the educational needs of its students. It’s a costly project, to be sure, but the need has been well-established. This isn’t about bells and whistles; this is about providing the types of learning spaces that have come to be expected, and providing technology necessary in a 2018 educational setting.

 

We understand that the cost is significant even at a discount, especially when expressed as raising taxes by $108 per $100,000 of real estate value. But the building cost will be amortized over a long period of time. If instead we had funded depreciation all along — setting aside money as the current building aged — there would be a nice fat pot to go to for a new building. But that’s not how the budget process has worked, so there is no nice fat pot. We have embraced this informal stepwise system of financial planning and budgeting, and been happy for that free ride, but it also means that taxpayers get hit hard at the 30- or 50-year marks when an aging building becomes unusable.

This isn’t unusual or particular to Tisbury. A recent (April 24) opinion column in the New York Times written by Paul Krugman repeats the adage that in terms of spending, the federal government is “basically an insurance company (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) with an army,” and that state and local governments are “basically school districts with police departments.” Indeed, the combination of federal, state, and local spending makes complete sense in responding to a sound community’s basic needs.

In this whole sad story, by far the greatest cause for disappointment lies with the lack of vision and accountable leadership at the town level, and the failure to provide anything like the planning vision and discipline we require. After six years of project planning and development, the best Tisbury’s elected leadership could come up with was one yes, one no and, most interestingly, an abstention.

In an earnest letter to The Times (April 13), selectman Melinda Loberg voiced our own concern, saying that she “could not defend taking this action to address real deficiencies in our school building ahead of any serious Island-wide planning efforts for coordinated educational programming and capital investments.”

We heartily concur that coordinated planning, regionalization, and revised tax formulations are exactly what the Island needs if we are to begin to meet the needs of our communities, and not just within “silos” such as schools. Given scant if any evidence — in housing, in emergency communications and management, in schools, in solid waste, in water treatment — that we will actually muster the elected and broader community leadership and commitment we need, punting disingenuously simply holds a needed project hostage to what looks to be a political mirage.