Looking to the future in Tisbury

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To the Editor:

I write this letter in support of the Tisbury School building and renovation project. My wife Georgia and I have lived in Tisbury for the past 32 years on Daggett Avenue; both of our children attended the Tisbury School from kindergarten through eighth grade. In 1992, I chaired the Tisbury School improvement committee, and worked with Principal Alan Campbell, the PTO, the select board, the superintendent, and finance committee to add new science labs, a substantial library outfitted with advanced digital media, an expanded kindergarten, and a trailer that could help ease overcrowding. The project almost didn’t happen when the contractor bids exceeded the money the town had allocated at town meeting. So parents joined together and raised money, along with matching goods and services, to get the addition built.

I believe we can join together once again to support the current effort to renovate and rebuild the Tisbury School through private fundraising and by accessing funds now becoming available through the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, the American Rescue Plan. 

The 1992 addition was the last time the Tisbury School was modernized and expanded since the auditorium was added in 1933. The original school, built in 1929, has served this community for more than 90 years, providing education to tens of thousands of students and their families, touching the lives of generations of Islanders. 

The time has long passed to update and renovate our school. The state Department of Education considers Tisbury a failed school. It is not structurally safe, doesn’t meet the federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and is too small to support the educational needs of its current 287 students, an enrollment that is expected to rise steadily by more than 100 students in the years ahead. 

Eighty teachers and support staff go to work daily in a building that leaks, has poor ventilation systems, and has issues so extensive it requires a full renovation and rebuild that will cost over $55 million. The conditions behind the price tag are detailed in the “Tisbury School Existing Conditions Report,” which can be read on the project website. Just three years ago, an effort to build a new school failed at the ballot box by 21 votes, but times have changed, and the need for a new school has not and will not simply go away. In the meantime, the Tisbury School budget of $6.5 million is spent sending our children to a school where the dining area is so tiny it requires five 15-minute lunch periods to feed them lunch, and where buckets dot the halls and classrooms to catch rainwater, as mold seeps into the masonry. We’ve learned that 

patchwork repairs will buy time, but not solve the problems. We need a new building to fit the immediate educational needs of our children. 

The new design and build plan has the full and public support of all three of our select board members. Importantly, the school committee and Tisbury School building committee have run a transparent and lengthy process to examine the condition of the school, hire a competent team, and produce designs that they unanimously adopted. Over the past five years, countless hours of time have been volunteered to arrive at an exciting school and campus plan. 

Here are some of the highlights of the plan I plan to vote for. 

The new school offers a complete renovation for the original 1929 building that will meet all current codes, and provide a healthy learning environment from pre-K to eighth grade. This includes full replacement of all mechanical systems: fire protection, ventilation, interior lighting, and security upgrades. All of the heating and cooling systems, electrical, plumbing, and digital technology will be updated. 

The new campus will be safe for use by persons with disabilities, in compliance with state and federal law. 

There will be a new gym with a space built alongside for all of the Unified Arts programs, and a new cafeteria, nurse’s office, and a fully equipped stage/theater. There will be a new pre-K program, and adaptable learning spaces for individual and small-group learning. The school will meet space and educational needs for decades to come. 

The building will be green-certified, managing storm and wastewater, and intends to use solar energy to run the campus. 

The sports fields will be redone, and spaces created for outdoor learning. The property will be completely relandscaped and made ADA-accessible. 

This is the right design, carefully arrived at, and ready to meet the educational needs of our students for the next 75 years. To get it done, we need a professional effort and a community fundraising effort. It’s perfectly appropriate to raise money privately for our public school — it happens all over the commonwealth. Our new M.V. Museum is a fine example of a successful capital campaign. My family purchased a brick in honor of our relatives. At the YMCA, major donors have their names on the pool complex and youth center. All public buildings of this scale involve some type of capital campaign, and this school project is no exception. But before we can raise real money, the voters of Tisbury will need to vote and pass the school project at both the special town meeting on June 13 and on the town ballot on June 22 (early voting begins June 17). If it does not pass these two critical tests, the project ceases, and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money will have been wasted that was spent on feasibility studies, reports, architectural drawings, and project managers, not to mention the time countless volunteers put in. 

I urge residents of Tisbury and interested Islanders to view the new vision for the school and campus in a series of short videos. Just visit tisbury-school-project.com. Here you can read the conditions report, view the plans and drawings, and see a schedule for upcoming informational meetings. It’s all in one spot. 

As the project moves forward, Tisbury voters needn’t go it alone. The federal and state governments now have extra resources available to address specific needs. (I take these objectives directly from the new American Rescue Plan — the italics are mine.) 

  • To provide safe circumstances for kids to go to school — the building itself is not safe
  • To combat hunger — 35 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch 
  • To address medical needs — expanding the nurse’s area can allow for improved health care and counseling 
  • To address students with special needs — the new school offers space for special needs students that Tisbury is unable currently to provide 
  • To help rural locations with significant poverty 
  • To help transition from fossil fuels to a green economy — this is a LEED green project 
  • To create jobs locally in rural and isolated areas — the construction itself can include local contractors

As the Biden administration expands its agenda to include infrastructure items like schools, Tisbury will be perfectly situated to find funds over the next two years, as we meet so many of the criteria. 

The Tisbury School building and renovation project meets the needs of the down-Island working community that we all rely upon to make our Island a livable place. It is a campus that can help working parents, with pre-K and afterschool programs. It is a public meeting space and kitchen and performing arts space that can work for the entire Island. 

The construction, presently scheduled to begin in 2022, can offer jobs to local contractors. 

The town will be asking voters to approve a big number in the voting booth — $55 million. But the town of Tisbury doesn’t need to borrow that full amount if it can be reduced by fundraising, grants, and other sources of funding. I believe that an all-out effort could reduce the project cost by millions of dollars over the next two years. But before we begin such an effort, we all need to vote yes for the renovation project, and give our town a new school campus, and our children a fair shot at getting the best education possible. 

Len Morris
Vineyard Haven