The Tisbury board of selectmen pulled the plug on the $46.6 million Tisbury School project.
The town sent two letters to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Tuesday to let the state agency know what the town intended to do after voters rejected a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion to pay for the town’s share of the project by 21 votes.
A letter signed by Superintendent Matt D’Andrea, school committee chairman Amy Houghton, and selectmen chairman Tristan Israel pegged the reason for the failed vote to the cost of the project. But on Tuesday, minutes before the town had to send its response to the MSBA, the board of selectmen voted to send a second letter that added concerns about the town bulldozing an old school building as a deciding factor in the failed vote.
“One point of clarification concerning the failed vote is that voters and the public in general struggled not only with the high cost of the project, but with the proposed demolition of the existing school,” the letter from selectmen states.
It was the latest twist in what’s been a wildly divisive issue. A couple of school advocates were in the audience at Katharine Cornell Theater, and at times they shouted back and forth with Israel over the decision to send the letter, calling it the board’s opinion.
“Did they see that note before you sent that?” Janet Packer, a member of the Tisbury School Committee, asked about Houghton and D’Andrea. “Did you do that? Did you give them the courtesy? Yes or no, it’s really simple.”
“I’m not going to be pigeonholed,” Israel responded.
“Yes or no?” Packer asked. “Did you show them that letter?”
“It was a phone conversation, so I did not,” Israel said.
“The answer’s no, you didn’t give them enough respect,” Packer said.
The options for the town were to seek a revote, ask for extension to make the decision (which was not guaranteed), or pull the plug. In a 3-0 vote Thursday that took a little more than 10 minutes of discussion, selectmen decided the voters had spoken at the ballot box.
Their vote was in direct contradiction to a 14-2 vote Monday by the building committee to seek an extension of time. But the no votes were telling at Monday’s meeting, where selectman Melinda Loberg and town administrator Jay Grande were the lone dissenters.
“This gives us no pleasure,” Loberg said just before Thursday’s vote.
Colleen McAndrews, chairman of the Tisbury School building committee, said afterward the board of selectmen didn’t follow the proper process. They should have voted not to sign the letter approved by the building committee.
“I’m frustrated and embarrassed,” McAndrews said. She said it was disrespectful not to allow her to explain the process and not to allow Superintendent Matt D’Andrea to read the letter before taking the vote.
The letter to the MSBA requires three signatures — the superintendent, the school committee chairman, and the board of selectmen chairman, McAndrews said. The letter will still be sent, with an explanation that the selectmen refused to sign, she said.
“I’m embarrassed that’s how our leadership handled it,” McAndrews said.
About two dozen people, including D’Andrea and McAndrews, were in the audience Thursday afternoon when the vote by selectmen was taken. One person sought to speak, and was told by Loberg, the board’s acting chairman, that there would be no comments from the audience.
All of the selectmen made brief comments.
Newly elected selectman Jim Rogers said he was unmoved by a last-minute letter from Richard Marks, the project consultant and president of Daedalus Projects. In that letter, provided to The Times after the vote, Marks offered to work over the next 30 days with the architect Peter Turowski to see if a 5 to 10 percent reduction in costs could be found. Marks wrote that he would work with the finance committee and finance director Jon Snyder to seek alternate revenue to “reduce the tax impact on Tisbury residents.”
The offer was made at no additional expense to the town, which has already spent $825,000 on the project’s feasibility and design plans.
“There are no guarantees that we will be able to significantly reduce the budget and cost to the town residents,” he wrote. “But I think it’s worth trying to do so.”
Rogers didn’t. “It takes us right back down the rabbit hole,” he said. He expressed concern with reducing the price by using cheaper materials. “I felt and still feel that’s the wrong way to go,” he said.
McAndrews said afterward that it was a generous offer from Marks and Turowski that wouldn’t prolong the process too long.
A broader consensus is needed, Rogers said during the meeting.
That’s something that Loberg also touched on, saying the 50/50 split in town illustrated the divide. “It’s not a good enough consensus to move forward,” she said, adding that it’s time to work on a project that can win enthusiastic support. “If the vote had been the other way, we wouldn’t be sitting here and seeking a revote,” Loberg said.
Selectman Tristan Israel, who was against the school project based on the cost, said it’s time to “end this now and regroup.”
Tisbury School Principal John Custer, who was also in the audience, said he’s hopeful the town can come together at some point to find a project that can be supported by the majority.
“I wish I knew. I wish I was that wise,” Custer said of what it would take to unite the town. “Clearly something different than this.”
He said he would be open to renovations of the existing school, something that had become a dividing line for some who didn’t think that option got enough review by the building committee.
“Like I said at town meeting, the process wasn’t perfect. The proposal wasn’t perfect — there is no perfect — but we’ve got to do something,” Custer said. “This was something, and I believe it was good. It wasn’t perfect … I’m open to whatever offers improvement for kids and is palatable for the town.”
The MSBA would have paid $14.1 million of the $46.6 million project. The town’s contribution of $32 million would have added an estimated $108 per $100,000 valuation for taxpayers.
Once the town decides on what project it will seek, it will have to reapply to the MSBA for potential state funding. School officials have said the earliest the town can apply is next April for a January 2020 decision.