Administration stalled on direction of high school building needs

Whether state aid will be forthcoming, and how to address immediate needs in a building with a $10 million repair price tag, raised many questions.

Advanced Placement testing is conducted at the High School for two weeks every May. – MV Times file photo

What was originally intended to be a meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School facility subcommittee morphed into a community information session due to a lack of a committee quorum last Thursday afternoon. Instead, high school students, teachers, and administrators sat down with Chris Blessen of Tappe Architects, a Boston-based firm that specializes in school construction and design, to consider several different paths to improve the current deteriorating condition of the facility. “What-if’s” peppered the conversation.

“We’ve been working for more than a year on studies on the facility, and have interviewed hundreds of people about the school, and that resulted in some really good data and ideas for renovating the high school,” interim Principal Margaret “Peg” Regan said Thursday.

Since April 2015, Tappe has been working with school facilities director Mike Taus, educators, and administrators to gather information about how the school is used. The firm also evaluated several studies conducted over the summer and fall, which were requested by the school committee at a cost of $125,000. Those studies included looking at the state of the athletic facilities and fields; building envelope and windows; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system; and space needs. Based on those studies, school leaders are looking at $10 million as a baseline to address the urgent building envelope and HVAC needs.

In November 2015, the high school committee approved $350,000 worth of repairs to the building’s HVAC system to improve air quality and keep the system running until a larger school overhaul occurs. That addressed just the first of many health and safety concerns, however.

“What has to be addressed in the next three to five years is the HVAC, the integration of the systems in the school, the crumbling infrastructure, the rotting window sills, and a lot of the building that’s falling apart,” Ms. Regan said.

The Career and Technical Education (CTE) wing of the school also needs to be addressed, she said. “We have looked carefully at our vocational CTE programs with the community and with the state, and have found that they are also inadequate for continuing education in the 21st century,” Ms. Regan said.

Her hope is that one day the high school will be able to serve the community as a whole, and become a 21st century learning facility, including integrated technology, interdisciplinary classrooms, and learning spaces that bolster the science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) curriculum. Teachers in attendance Thursday cited collaborative spaces, bigger classrooms, better utilization of the courtyards, and small meeting spaces for kids to use between classes as necessary items for a school renovation. The teachers emphasized the need for a healthy and safe environment to teach in.

“Do we want to grow our school in terms of philosophy and education, are we just fixing what we need to fix, or is it something in between?” Ms. Regan said. “That’s something we’re not sure of, what people want in the community.”

Nine options

Tappe Architects has drafted nine concepts for a renovated school. Thursday, Mr. Blessen presented one option, which uses the current building envelope but reworks the design, flow, and mechanical systems. The plan includes shifting the main entrance of the high school to the left side of the building and adding a block for administration offices. Doing so would free up the whole front of the building for classrooms, and make the entrance to the school in the middle, cutting down on travel distance to classrooms.

The plan also included developing the library into a global learning commons; expanding and integrating the CTE program; utilizing the courtyards; creating meeting spaces for students and educators; adding an art space and STEM lab; expanding the cafeteria; moving the guidance department to the center of the school; dispersing the special education program evenly throughout the school; and reprogramming the classroom spaces to allow for more collaboration between departments.

Mr. Blessen did not have a price tag for any of the nine plans, which he said are just concepts that attempt to solve some of the school’s current problems, rather than definitive architectural designs.

The question, however, is whether to pursue funds for the kind of intermediate design proposed by Mr. Blessen, to address only the emergency repairs, or to pursue a completely new school. That decision is largely dependent on a funding source.

“There’s an issue of immediacy that’s really vital and that Mike [Taus] has been addressing,” high school committee member Robert Lionette said. “Each time he speaks with me, it’s about which emergency on health and safety is pushed to the forefront, and that is ongoing and has to be ongoing. The real rub is that if we do nothing, we’re still into this building for at least $10 million just for the health and safety and maintenance issues.”

“It’s kind of like a house, when you get to a point where you ask, Do we just tear it down and rebuild? Or do you just keep patching it together?” Ms. Regan said. “What we’re seeing is that the $10 million will give us a decent building, but maybe we want to go past that.”

MSBA contingent

Last year, high school leaders applied to the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) grant program for financial and planning assistance with a new or renovated building. Of 96 applications, only 16 schools were accepted into the program. MVRHS was not one of them. The Tisbury School was chosen, however, and is currently going through that process. High school leaders applied to the program again this year, and will hear back from the authority in December. How to proceed with the high school facility moving forward is largely contingent upon the MSBA decision, and whether or not school administrators can certify outside funding for a project.

Thursday, Mr. Blessen said that some schools have reapplied to the MSBA program since its start in 2008. Others reapplied five or six times before giving up. Although he warned the group not to get their hopes up, Mr. Blessen said applying to the program now is good timing for MVRHS.

“You’ve got this environment where the state seems to be putting emphasis on a lot of comprehensive high schools,” he said. “Look at what the governor is doing — he’s putting a lot of emphasis on STEM and CTE, and so it probably trickles down to the MSBA as well. You may actually have a better chance right now.”

Ms. Regan said she doesn’t want the state of the facility to fall into the background while they wait for a decision from the MSBA, however.

Currently, Ms. Regan, Mr. Taus, and MVRHS finance director Mark Friedman are working on a five-year capital improvement plan, which outlines what projects need to be done at the high school, and how they can be paid for, whether through operating funds, excess and deficiency funds, or other avenues.

“It is exceedingly challenging right now for my office to build a five-year capital plan to recommend when we can’t see what the bigger master plan is,” Mr. Friedman said. “What we don’t want to do is go in and throw three-quarters of a million dollars to do more HVAC and domestic hot-water work, only to find out two years later that we now want to do something new with the building. All of that becomes wasted money.”

At the end of the meeting, Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea said that while school leaders “keep our fingers crossed” that the school is accepted into the MSBA program, the group should begin to plot out a Plan B, which could include upgrading the school in pieces over the years, funding an entirely new school, or just making emergency repairs as necessary until another bid to the MSBA program can be submitted. In the meantime, he said, master plans for all of those avenues should be drafted so steps can be taken in a timely manner following the MSBA decision in December.