Tisbury School needs to be gutted, say experts

Renovation scope broadens as questions about voter cost tolerance return. 

From left, Tisbury School Building Committee chair Rachel Orr, committee members Reade Milne, Jim Rogers, and Harold Chapdelaine. — Rich Saltzberg

The sum total of Tappé Architects’ draft existing conditions report for the Tisbury School reveals the Tisbury School needs to be gutted for a renovation and addition project to succeed. Tappé and its subcontractors found widespread deficiencies inside the building that necessitated removal, as opposed to repair or upgrade. Chris Blessen of Tappé, which is the firm tapped to inspect the school and formulate designs for it, told the Tisbury School Building Committee Monday night that the handwriting was on the wall. 

“Really we’re talking about the majority of the building going down to the studs,” he said. 

”I was never in doubt that this was a total gut job,” committee member and Tisbury selectman Jim Rogers said. “Get down to the studs and see what’s really there. That was always in my mind — the way you would have to go.”

The roof likely “needs to be rebuilt and redone for structural reasons,” Blessen said, “especially if we’re going to put solar panels on top of it.” He also said new code requirements relative to earthquake engineering may be required, given the scale of the work.

“We’re going to engage a consultant to come out and take basically a core sample of the existing bricks, so we can see how much moisture is inside of that, and get a real good sense of what the existing brick walls are doing,” he said

Daedalus Projects president Richard Marks piggybacked on Blessen, noting the school needs extensive work. 

“If you read the report, you’ll see the exterior walls need significant work,” Marks said. “The windows in most cases have failed, [even the glazing] in the newer part of the building. The cast stone or concrete sills and lintels need to be replaced. There’s significant brick replacement that needs to be done. So I just want to make sure everyone understands, because we’ve had this real strong desire to renovate the existing building … We’re talking about stripping it down to its studs and doing significant work, perhaps taking the roof off, which means sort of a temporary roof, and then doing significant work to the exterior as well.”

Committee member Reade Milne, who is also Edgartown building inspector, said she was confident the scale of the work would necessitate wholesale code upgrades, including seismic or earthquake engineering. 

“It’s not impossible to upgrade a masonry structure seismically, but it’s a big intervention,” Marks said. “We did one up in Lowell at the Boott Mills, which is a National Park building — the National Park Service had sufficient funds. But we were talking 10 percent of the construction cost for just seismic upgrades … essentially the walls have to be able to move and not fall down in an earthquake, and it’s not easy to do.”

Asked by The Times if brick mortar at the school had been tested or would be tested for asbestos, Marks said, “I’d like to punt on the answer.” Marks said he wanted to “engage our hazardous consultant to determine whether he advises doing that in conjunction with the core testing of the brick …”

Marks said it was “doubtful” a phased construction project is still plausible, especially for the older portions of the school. “We could potentially keep the [1990s] section so you’d be back to something like you were the first semester of this year,” he said. “Which everybody loved,” he added facetiously. “So keep a core school operating while you redo the old building, and then come back and do the [1990s] renovation, probably with an addition at the same time you’re doing the older building renovation work.” 

One caveat with such a phased process is it would extend construction time, he said. 

“That will be a judgment call we’ll have to make based on [the availability of] alternative facilities and the cost of alternative facilities,” he said.

Milne pointed out renovation costs had begun to take on the appearance of new school scale and costs. She said that while she understood the community wanted to preserve the the look of the building, she also understood they didn’t want to spend mightily, and that it was paramount the committee impress upon voters what’s required at the school, and what’s at stake. 

“I’m saying if we don’t start focusing on that now, then this is all for nothing,” she said. “All of this — for nothing. If people don’t understand, really understand, that this has to happen, then we’re going to be still stuck with these same problems.” 

Committee member Harold Chapdelaine said a light renovation “seems absolutely irresponsible,” and would be “kicking the can down the road.” He said students and teachers should be forewarned displacement is likely on the horizon. 

“I think that reality has to be established, and everyone has to process that,” he said. 

“I never got the impression from the voters that there was an unlimited budget to do a renovation addition,” he said. “There’s a desire for a renovation addition,” but he questioned if voters would stomach a lofty price tag.

“Are we going to feel fiscally responsible going to the voters with $50 million, or do we feel fiscally responsible going to the voters with $40 million?” he asked. 

Chapdelaine went on to say, “If we go down an ideal [road] of a full gut job, do the right thing by the building, build the appropriate square footage that the education plan requires, and we’re back north of $50 million, my instinct, my research with members of the community, said there will be a third school building committee, and this will get pushed off again …”

At their meeting next week, the committee and Tisbury School Principal John Custer will lead a tour of the school for those interested. 

The current work of Tappé, Daedelus, and the building committee comes after Tisbury lost out on a new $46.6 million school by 21 votes. Tisbury voters approved a new school at the 2018 annual town meeting by a vote of 316 to 99. But shortly afterward, by a vote of 546 in favor and 567 opposed, Tisbury voters defeated the new school at the ballot box. In defeating the school, Tisbury voters also rejected $14.6 million in state aid that would have reduced the cost of the school to $32 million. Selectman Tristan Israel came out against the project, selectman Melinda Loberg did not take a position and abstained from a board vote to endorse the new school, and selectmen Larry Gomez threw his support behind it. 

Amidst the Great Depression, committee member Rita Jeffers said, the people of Tisbury decided to build a new school that dwarfed the schoolhouse it replaced. “So I think [in] 2020, we could come up with a creative way to make this project happen, and as a town we could stand behind it and say we did that,” she said. 


  1. Maybe the donors who were willing to give millions for a new track can help out. Not trying to be sarcastic. It makes me sad that the Island can come up with that much money for sports while the high school and Tisbury remain in need of serious, basic repairs.

    • Tisbury taxpayers need to figure this out for themselves. Why should the rest of the island bail out a cheap town? This will go to $60 million before it’s over.

  2. Let’s start with the end of this article… they are going to have tours of the school for anyone who wants one, this sounds like it’s going to be like touring Chernobyl. Is the town going to charge money for these tours to off set/subsidize the millions they threw back at the state? The only thing that has been accomplished is a complete sabotage by town leadership to drive this project forward. Multiple committees, multiple consultants, multiple layers of misinformation only dwarfed by the layers of lead in the school…and they haven’t looked at the outside grounds yet. This is what happens when you try to be cheap skates, it catches up to you and you end up paying more. How about saving money by getting rid of the Grande, an apathetic fence sitter who has done nothing to herd the elected officials in the correct direction, savings of over 150k, then let’s lose the police chief, who does nothing other than defer to the selectmen(who know nothing, that’s why they ask questions) another savings of 155k. In fact get rid of all the cherries on top and save a few million.
    The bottom line is you need a new school, and you need to save up some money to buy it. Don’t lose sight of the actual problem here… leadership. Clean house and get things moving in the right direction.
    This isn’t a third world country with a lack of resources and education, so stop acting like it! Covering things up and chopping down a tree have not solved any of the true issues with the town or the school!

  3. Someone needs to account for the lack of budgeting for capital improvements over the years in order to keep the school structure in good condition. Everyone knows that operations costs on an annual basis need to be put inside a budget. Past superintendents and the Selectmen have to be held accountable. A new building is ”north of 50 million”. Tisbury has a population of 4100 so lets suppose 3 people per household and you have approx 1400 households paying 50 million or 35 thousand dollars each household. You can likely get grants and federal or state assistance of 25 million for the building but its still going to cost Tisbury residents 25 to 30 million over a period of years in taxes. Does the Town of Tisbury have any endownment? Can it get funds elsewhere? Will other towns share in the cost? How much will Charlie Baker give us? 50 million loan over 30 years is 230000 dollars per month. Think about merging with West Tisbury or the High school and adding portable units. There has to be a method of solving this problem and not spending 50 mill you dont have.

    • Someone needs to account for failing to invest in Tisbury???? Well, that would be the taxpayers of Tisbury. For years you’ve refused to invest in your town. My dad used to tell a story of a farmer who stopped feeding his dairy cow to save money. Everything was fine, and he saved some money. Until one day the cow died. Well, Tisbury, your herd is dying.

  4. Facetiously is one of only three words that use all six vowels in alphabetical order. Thank you, Tisbury School education.

  5. Does Tisbury need its own school? Not many new building lots left in town so forecast is much less new children for the future. Simply combine forces with West Tisbury and save many millions.

    • So tired! Are you sure you read this paper? There are two 40B projects proposed in Tisbury. Do you really think enrollment will go down? Another victim of the propaganda machine from 2 years ago or maybe a perpetrator! I would expect enrollment will go up, just based upon those two proposals. Regardless, If anyone, and i mean anyone has been paying attention, the current school is not adequate from a space perspective to teach the students today, let alone grow the student body. There are plenty of new building lots in Tisbury, they just are not on the market and there are plenty of large lots that have not yet been sub divided, Any home sale could add children. Misinformation is so tiring. Does West Tisbury have room for approximately 300 kids? No. So it would require a large building project in West Tisbury. How does that save millions? Oh I see……new construction is less expensive than renovation, so Tisbury saves. Guess what, Tisbury still owns the building that needs major repairs. The problem does not go away, it still needs a gut job or a tear down, Tisbury pays either way.

      • You may want to study economics. One regional school building is 10 times less costly than 5 schools. One police department is 10 times less costly than 6 buildings. But Islanders like higher taxes.

  6. I think you have missed the point on West Tisbury being West Tisbury!!! They didn’t want to be part of Tisbury and left, based on what is taking place now I can’t believe they would change their minds and want to hitch their wagon to what Tisbury has to offer…

  7. So let me get this straight. All other buildings built on the island can withstand an earthquake including the high school? It isnt fair to submit Tisbury to codes no one else has.

    • “It isn’t fair” is the argument my daughter used to use when she was 10. What really isn’t fair is the crappy conditions Tisbury puts its school kids through.

      • The question isnt if you need a school it is how to pay for it. The economic environment hasnt improved, the economy still has to have massive amounts of stimulation from the government in terms of deficit spending and Federal reserve QE. Low rates on highly inflated building costs are no bargain. The town should try again to get a larger grant from the state.

        • That would be the MSBA. It exists for these purposes. The Selectmen of Tisbury were adamant that reapplying was not an option. So Tisbury homeowners (note I did not say residents) get to foot the bill. Maybe there are some magic grants up their sleeves? It would be great to hear about that soon as we are coming to town meeting where some articles could die in anticipation of school building costs.

  8. If this situation weren’t so sad it would be laughable. When I explain to my child why we opted for school choice I don’t go into great depth and detail about the crumbling building infested with mold, lead, radon & asbestos. I use it as an opportunity to teach him that there is a serious price we pay when we elect morons. The total and utter lack of foresight by Israel, Loberg, and Rogers is stomach turning. Bravo (facetious tone) to all of the people who voted no on the new school. The cost will ultimately be almost twice what the town would have spent two years ago.

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