Up-Island School Committee deals with heating headaches

Plant and equipment issues dominate the discussion.

Photo by Michael Cummo

The Up-Island School Committee wrestled with building maintenance challenges, as well as considering budget, curriculum, and school program progress reports. in an agenda-packed, three-hour meeting on Monday evening at the West Tisbury School.

Rick Travers, the head custodian in West Tisbury, gave the committee his report on the need for a new controller that will be required to monitor univents (air handlers), pumps, and boilers throughout the building. Travers was hired seven months ago, and has been researching ways to improve the efficiency of the school’s heating system. His work complements the consulting recommendations received by the school district on custodial training and building maintenance several weeks ago.

Travers said, “The boilers seem fine, but because we cannot control the pumps and univents except manually, I spend my whole day running the building. In fact, it is impossible to make adjustments over a weekend or during a vacation. So, for example, when I arrived at the school Monday morning, the temperature was down to 44°.”

Committee members, including Jeffrey Skip Manter, West Tisbury, asked Travers if there was no freeze warning as part of the fire-alarm security system. Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt and others at the meeting said that the fire-alarm security system did not have this feature.

New technology for energy efficiency

Mr. Travers said that he had gotten two bids on the controller unit. “If we install a new one,” he said, “I will be able to balance the pumps and the heat in each of the rooms. I will be able to see the output on a web page, and even on my cell phone. This should definitely help us to save money by not spending so much on oil when we don’t need to,” he said. Michael Marcus, chairman of the committee from West Tisbury, asked the group how much they were spending on oil every month, and was told it was approximately $5,000. The committee unanimously agreed to pursue a third quote on the controller system upgrade.

Broken boiler cause for concern in Chilmark

Susan Stevens, principal of the Chilmark School, said that the heating system in her building is also causing serious problems. “One of our two boilers is broken. And I have electric space heaters in my car that we are moving from room to room while we wait for answers on the repair issues,” she said. “Until the issue is resolved, it is difficult to get several of the rooms above 60°.” Procurement timing issues, funding options, and selection of contractors loomed as challenges to the repair, she reported.

Energy audits, recommendations and funding

As the debate continued, discussion focused on whether it would be best to continue to work with Rise, the energy-audit arm of the Cape Light Compact — whose funding for projects was seen as helpful, but uncertain. When asked to comment, Martha’s Vineyard schools superintendent James Weiss said the high school has used Rise for an energy audit and maintenance recommendations. “The total for the project was $360,000, but unfortunately, Rise did not have the funds in this budget cycle,” he said. “That is the risk of counting on them for an emergency situation.”

The committee then asked the administration to make it possible for Mr. Travers to visit the Chilmark School in order to assess the boiler/controller situation. All members agreed that it would make sense to see if the procurement process and gathering of bids for repair or replacement in the two buildings could be combined. “We will take care of those details and report back on the issue,” said Mr. Weiss.

Rolling out the new writing curriculum

In other business, Matt D’Andrea, recently named the Island’s next superintendent of schools, described the steps he is taking to roll out a new writing program. He first noted that writing skills are now part of the Common Core, and will be included as soon as this spring’s March standardized testing. “We have been working with teachers across the district in order to prepare students for what will be expected of them in the March tests,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

The writing curriculum is based on the Lucy Calkins program, developed at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University in New York. Patty Wright from the project has been assisting the school district, and is expected to return for additional training sessions. Mr. D’Andrea is now finalizing professional development workshops for this summer that teachers can use to gain recertification credits. He said that he wants to involve Pam Allyn in the workshops this summer. Ms. Allyn is an author and founder of LitLife, an organization that focuses on helping teachers bring writing skills into the classroom. “I am also working with the Breadloaf School at Middlebury College to enrich the program further,” he said.

Robert Lionette, committee representative from Chilmark, said that he was very pleased with the progress of the writing program. “Next, I hope that we can connect our program of writing excellence in elementary school with the high school, so that we have the same great result we have had with the new math curriculum,” he said.

New front doors and a secure entrance

Funds have already been approved by the Up-Island School Committee in the current budget to replace front doors at the West Tisbury School. Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said that the school had received one quote for replacing the doors, but the bid for adding a security area would increase cost beyond the budgeted amount. She continued, “The design plan is that all front doors would be open when children arrive in the morning, but after that, all entrances would be secured, and visitors would need to move through the office in order to gain access to the building.” The committee put off further discussion of the project until there could be some further clarification of the design and finances.

Progress on long-range goals

Ms. Lowell-Debettencourt also reviewed progress on all six of the school’s longer-range goals, which were established by a committee of parents, teachers, and the administration. She reported excellent progress on Goal 1, with the selection of students and successful implementation of a full year of algebra in eighth grade. Goal 2 revolves around teaching typing and improving keyboarding skills in the first through fifth grades. Goal 3 focuses on the refinement of a pilot project that introduced yoga into the health curriculum. Goal 4 is a multi-year program to rebuild the West Tisbury school playground. Goal 5 is an effort to increase wider community use of the building. And Goal 6 centers on the use of Island-grown food in the school cafeteria in order to communicate the benefits of the local food movement. Cafeteria staff were invited to make a presentation about their Island Grown program at a state-wide conference during the year.