School officials seek local support for Tisbury School project

School leaders said a vote to borrow $825,000 at town meeting on April 12 will determine the future of state aid in the rebuilding process.

School principal John Custer describes the issues to the 19-member Tisbury School building committee at its first meeting Tuesday night. – Photo by Cathryn McCann

The Tisbury School building committee held its first meeting Tuesday night, and the main focus of the 19-member group was an article on the upcoming annual town meeting warrant that asks voters to authorize the borrowing of $825,000 for the next phase of the Tisbury School project — an examination of the feasibility of either renovating or rebuilding the school.

In late January, school officials traveled to Boston where they received an official invitation from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to enter the “eligibility period” for their grant program, which provides financial and instructional support throughout the whole process of renovating or building a school. Tisbury School was one of eight chosen out of a pool of nearly 100 schools across the state that applied for the program.

Since then, officials have been working to check off a number of items they must complete prior to the local vote in April. With just one checklist item remaining, Tisbury School principal John Custer outlined the necessity for the borrowing.

“This process will only continue if we receive local vote authorization … I’m hopeful that we get the town’s support at this spring’s town meeting and we’re able to continue into the next phase of the process,” Mr. Custer said.

The $825,000 will fund the next several steps of the MSBA process, which includes a comprehensive feasibility study, schematic design, environmental and site testing, and the formation of a project team. Work on the feasibility study would likely start this summer, pending approval at town meeting.

At the end of that time, which will likely take one to two years, school officials will have answers to the three main questions Mr. Custer said he has been fielding from the community: How much is it going to cost? How long is it going to take? What kind of project will it be?

The $825,000 price tag to fund those studies was reached after superintendent of schools Matt D’Andrea reached out to surrounding towns with similar school-district profiles or building projects, and consulted with the project manager assigned to the Tisbury School for the duration of the MSBA partnership. Based on the average Tisbury taxpayer’s property bill, the borrowing means an increase of $20 annually for 20 years, Mr. Custer said.

“We feel good, based on what we’ve done, that will be enough,” Mr. Custer said.

The four types of projects the MSBA supports include a new building in the current location; a new building in a different location; renovation and addition; or renovating the existing building and keeping the same footprint. The MSBA has already approved Tisbury for a 41.26 percent reimbursement, and that number can only increase, Mr. Custer said.

The Tisbury School was one of the few schools chosen in the competition grant process for good reason, Mr. Custer said. After reviewing their application, the MSBA cited three main criteria for choosing the Tisbury School: overcrowding, inadequate program and educational space, and a necessity for system modernization.

“We’ve been cited by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for inappropriate space,” Mr. Custer said. “There’s not much we can do about it but plead for mercy and say we’re trying.”

The Tisbury School, which houses about 320 students, was built in 1929, with a gymnasium later built in 1938, and a library and more classroom space added in the early 1990s. Mr. Custer said that although the building isn’t crumbling or falling down, it is becoming costly and difficult to maintain.

“In the long term, that will bite you,” he said. “So we’ve got to do something to plan for the building’s future.”

It is for that reason, Mr. Custer said, that they need local support at town meeting to continue in the MSBA process. The authorization must pass by a two-thirds vote, and then again at the ballot box on April 26. In total, 125 out of 130 schools chosen for the MSBA grant program have received the local vote authorization.

“This is my fifth year as principal … and this part of the job is something that I was excited about from day one, and I’m even more excited today, because we were accepted by the MSBA in 2015. We were denied in 2014, and some schools, some communities, they apply many, many, many times and they never get a yes,” Mr. Custer said. “To be accepted in year two, it’s not unprecedented, but it’s rare, and we cannot pass up this opportunity.”

Tisbury School tour

Following a Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) meeting, Mr. Custer and associate principal Sean Mulvey conducted a tour throughout the school, pointing out space constrictions and building deficiencies.

Throughout the tour, “making do” and “maintaining” were repeated over and over. The tour started in a small kindergarten classroom. The average class size is 17 to 18 students, Mr. Custer said, and many of the school’s classrooms cannot adequately accommodate that number of students.

The tour segued into the cafeteria, which houses the kitchen and four tables in one small room. Mr. Custer said it fits no more than 80 students at a time, which can be a “big puzzle with the schedule” in order to accommodate five lunch periods.

From there, parents and teachers traveled to the “belly of the beast,” or the boiler room, where Mr. Custer said a boiler failed during his first week as principal. A trip to the gymnasium showed a space that is over 75 years old. The space, which is used for gym classes, sports, theater, and special education programs, also is home to the Tisbury town shelter. Mr. Custer said the space “absolutely limits opportunities for kids and the community.”

Mr. Custer showed the group a small special education room which houses students from K-4 and two teachers. He said the space is too cramped to allow privacy, which is necessary when there are multiple programs being led in the same room. The tour briefly passed through Mr. Custer’s office, a small room sandwiched between a special education room and classroom on the second floor, and into several more classrooms, before ending in the library.

After the tour, PTO coordinator Siobhan Mullin thanked everyone for participating. “The tour gives a huge context about what this is all about,” she said. “This will be a school for future needs.”

There will be a presentation on the warrant article Wednesday, April 6 at 4 pm at the Tisbury Senior Center.  The public is invited to attend and ask questions.