Updated 8:30 pm
Emotions were running high Monday night over how to proceed with the Tisbury School renovation-and-addition project, with the building committee’s chair, Rachel Orr, in tears as the meeting adjourned. In an 8-1 vote, with Orr the lone dissenter, the committee voted to move forward with Option 3 — the most expensive of the two options under consideration, at $56.7 million.
Present at the virtual meeting were the Tisbury School Building Committee, several professionals associated with the project, and a handful of members of the community, with the total participants around 35 during the course of the meeting.
Orr had lobbied the committee to seek more public input before settling on a specific option. “If COVID had not happened, we would have had designated workshops where we would have presented options to the public,” she told The Times afterward. “But COVID has happened … there we are, and it’s difficult.”
The full committee is ready to move forward, and so now the architects will begin working on schematics to share with the committee and the public.
On Tuesday evening, the Tisbury select board voted unanimously to authorize town administrator Jay Grande to hire a financial consultant to help the town come up with a way to fund the project, including looking for grants.
Select board chairman Jim Rogers, who represents the board on the building committee, said he committed the select board’s help to find a way to do the project “without financially strapping the taxpayers.”
The financial consultant would look at ways to fund the school and other town projects — like a town hall and police station — with the least impact on the taxpayers, Rogers said. That would include looking at grants and other funding sources, he said.
Newly elected selectman Larry Gomez said he supports getting professional assistance. “I concur with the idea of Option 3, to move forward and not spin our wheels and be stagnant for another four or five months, and have our taxpayers wonder why we’re taking so long,” he said.
Tisbury finance director Jon Snyder said having someone research finance options is a good move. “That will take quite a bit of legwork to track down,” he said.
As for her emotions during Monday’s meeting, Orr said the project combined with the situation is taking its toll. “It’s stressful. We’re dealing with challenging dynamics. It continues to be hard for everyone,” she said. “[The project] requires a ton of time. To do meetings on Zoom is hard. For me personally, if I get too tired, I get emotional. I don’t have control over it.”
The world situation has added to the stress. “We’re in a pandemic, racial reckoning, and we’re trying to build a school at a time when our community remains divided,” Orr said.
Kevin Putney, a cost estimator, used CHA Consulting, formerly Daedalus Projects, revised the estimate ahead of the meeting. Richard Marks, a representative of CHA, the owner’s project manager, said the revisions did not “change the bottom line much.” Marks presented the estimates of two options during a meeting a week earlier. At that time, the total cost was $55.6 million, but with the adjustments, it rose to $56.7 million.
“This is not going to be the one and only estimate. We’re going to continue to refine this. We’re going to look at some options of cost reduction,” said Marks.
Some building committee members expressed reluctance at the estimated cost of the project ahead of the group’s ultimate vote.
“I don’t feel comfortable with presenting the town with something that’s between $51 and $55 million,” said member Reade Milne. “I will continue to say that we need to give our design team a budget, and then we need to talk about what we’re doing. The town is not going to support $55 million.” Two years ago, voters in Tisbury rejected a new school project with an overall price tag of $46.6 million, which the state had agreed to pay $14.1 million of in a grant. “I don’t feel that it’s responsible for us to continue down this path when we know that $55 million is more than our community has said it wants to spend,” said Milne, though she ultimately voted in favor of Option 3.
Milne also expressed concerns over the group’s ability to come to consensus and communicate effectively. “I feel like we all have our own ideas and our own positions, and I’m struggling to feel like we are actually supporting each other and moving together as a unit,” said Milne.
Several meeting attendees reflected on the driving philosophy behind the project, and behind what pricing may be appropriate to present to the community.
“Projects can either have one of three main criteria. They can either be cost-, schedule-, or program-driven. This one has been program-driven for the past six months,” Marks said.
“The select people need to find a way to find a budgetary process, even at this cost, and not kill the taxpayer,” said Jim Rogers, Tisbury select board’s representative to the committee. “I really think for the sake of the community, for the sake of the students, and for the sake of education, that you cannot have the budget drive the project. The project must drive the budget.”
Committee member Harold Chapdelaine referred to the proposed gymnasium renovation as a “chess piece,” emblematic of a broader question regarding how the project, given the proposed cost, can best serve both the school and the greater community at the same time.
As discussed in last week’s meeting, the main difference between the two proposals is where the gymnasium is located. In Option 1, it’s relocated and expanded, and the existing gym is turned into a cafetorium. In Option 3, the existing gym and music room are demolished, and a larger gym is built.
Marks added that in order to bring down the cost of the project, the building committee and others would have to examine the possibility of cuts to already existing programs. “Could we get 2 or 3 million out with reasonable cuts in the site work? Yes, but then we’re still going to be over 50. If that’s the magic number, then we’ll have to look at significant cuts in the educational program, which is things like music, pre-K, a smaller gym. Significant cuts, not just little cuts,” said Marks.
Several members addressed a desire to compromise and work out growing tensions in vision in order to deliver a successful project to the community.
“There is no such thing as a perfect project,” said Tisbury School Principal John Custer. “No one gets everything they want, simply put … We need a successful project, but there is no such thing as a perfect project.”
Committee members held different views on whether the implementation of a budget would have guided, or will be able to guide, the committee’s work effectively.
“Our charge was renovation-addition. I certainly was one who advocated for an early budget. The committee made a decision not to go there. I understand that. I do think, in retrospect, a budget in front of the committee may have hamstrung our ability to meet the education plan,” said Chapdelaine, as he reflected over the direction of the project moving forward. “As tough as the number is, we all have a lot of work to do to find a path to make one of these plans meet the education goals of the community,” said Chapdelaine.
Other members advocated for the implementation of a budget at this point in the process. “We need to have a plan we can show to the public, we need to have a budget we can show to the public, and we need to have an effect we can show to the public,” said Rogers.
“If it’s going to be in the $50 million range, we should do our very best to present value to the town,” Orr said. “Given the level of investment we are asking the town to make, we should work really hard to present [something] really good.”
Orr grew emotional when speaking passionately about wanting to deliver the best possible plan to the town. She also spoke to ongoing conflicts between members of the group as creating challenges to delivering on the project. “I think that, to move forward, we have to trust and appreciate one another,” she said.
Chapdelaine spoke positively about Orr’s leadership, and discussed a path forward for the committee. “We have to be willing to voice our opinions, give our analysis, and take the criticism with grace and, hopefully, always with the intent that the group has got one goal in mind,” he said.
Chris Blessen, a principal of Tappé, the project’s architect, went room by room through the particular aspects of each plan. The diagrams of each plan are available on the school project website.
Several members of the public weighed in with their views on the proposals.
“It seems there’s a level of complication that is being entered into here that, for me, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” said Dan Seidman, who served on a previous building committee. He referenced a plan he previously submitted for modular renovations. “I don’t understand why an idea that was previously submitted was not presented,” said Seidman. He also offered to resubmit his proposal to the committee.
Angie Francis spoke to her desire for a design review presented to the public. “It could be a mistake to forge into schematic design without a strong foundation on which to build those plans in the next stage of development,” said Francis, who along with her husband is a licensed architect. “We want to be helpful, we care deeply about the project, and want it to be successful.”
Committee members tried to keep the focus on the projects presented. “This is not a community-design project where everybody comes in and submits their ideas about it,” Milne said. “This is us, steering the ship, and looking for input from the community.”
“By endorsing a concept, it doesn’t mean we’re telling the voters and the taxpayers, ‘That’s all we’re going to offer you,’” said Rogers, who previously has also advocated for picking a single option to present for public response. “This is not the end of discussion with the public. It’s the beginning of the discussion with the public on what we’re proposing,” said Rogers.
Orr concluded the meeting with a proposal to hold a public meeting sometime in the near future to gauge public opinion on the proposal.
The meeting was recorded, and is available at tisbury-school-project.com.
George Brennan contributed to this report. Updated to include a vote by the select board to seek a financial consultant to help with financing the project.