Orr criticizes Tisbury School project

Chapdelaine rebuts, says Orr’s opinion nonfactual, ‘undermines’ committee.

Tisbury School Building Committee member Rachel Orr has leveled criticism at the $55 million project.

Tisbury School building committee member Rachel Orr, former chair of the committee, has issued a letter critical of several aspects of the proposed $55 million Tisbury School renovation and addition project.

In a letter to the committee issued during a Zoom meeting last week, Orr cited unanswered questions, unresolved design issues, and the overall price of the project as the basis for her criticism. The letter was not discussed during the meeting.

In a rebuttal statement to The Times, committee chair Harold Chapedelaine wrote that while he appreciates Orr’s contributions to the committee, many of her questions have been asked and answered already, and other assertions Orr made should not be taken as “factual.” 

This comes as the project is scheduled to go before Tisbury voters. A special town meeting is scheduled for Sunday, June 13, at 1 pm where voters will be asked to spend $55 million through a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion. That meeting will be held under a tent on the grounds of the Tisbury School. If voters back the spending, the approval must be ratified at the annual town election. An early voting day will be held Thursday, June 17, from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, according to town clerk Hilary Conklin, and the election itself will take place on Tuesday, June 22, from noon to 8 pm. On both days, the polls will be at the Tisbury Emergency Services Building across from the Tisbury School. 

In her letter, which is dated May 24, Orr enumerated her qualms with the project. “The current proposal addresses building envelope, building system, and program deficiencies — as it should — but I believe the plan still needs more design work,” Orr wrote. “The aspects of it that I’m struggling with relate to light, building flexibility, future planning, energy use, and accessibility. I doubt my specific concerns will come as a surprise to any of you, as they are in keeping with my previously expressed thoughts and questions.”

Concerning kindergarten space, Orr wrote that light was being sacrificed. “Each of these classrooms is 1,100 square feet. (For some perspective, that’s bigger than any single floor of my house.) The eastern classroom has [three] windows and a glass door on the short wall, which faces north,” Orr wrote. “The plan includes construction of a wall in front of these windows to provide a barrier between the classrooms and Spring Street. The western classroom has [nine] windows, [three] on the north side and [six] on the western side, and a glass door. For me, this difference in natural light between the two classrooms is significant — significant enough that I would not allow a child of mine to be assigned to the eastern classroom. I don’t want anyone else’s 5- or 6-year-old to be assigned to this kindergarten classroom either. I also am concerned about staff assigned to teach in this room. It will be a hard space to spend the day, particularly during the winter months.”

Orr described the proposed cafeteria as smaller than the overall square footage would lend one to believe.

“The cafeteria on the schematic plan is labeled 3,050 square feet, but approximately 1,400 square feet of the area shown — the area colored in orange on my markup — is not available for cafeteria purposes because the space serves as a connecting hallway and classroom entrance,” she wrote.

Concerning the “historic” main entrance to the school, which is preserved in the project plans, Orr wrote that it offers inadequate accessibility. 

“The historic main entrance, the entrance that architecturally continues to appear as the main entrance to the building, is not universally accessible,” she wrote. “The present design precludes making this entrance accessible because the interior use of the space is a central stairway. So with this plan, the historical entrance has essentially become an end-of-day egress for able-bodied students. The arrangement also means the exit fails as an accessible emergency exit. Most primary classrooms are on the south side of the original 1929 building. I find this lack of accessibility troubling.”

Among other criticisms, Orr also wrote that a central staircase suffered from accessibility issues and robbed other areas of the school of light. 

Chapdelaine offered a different viewpoint. “In Ms. Orr’s letter it appears [she] has either forgotten or chooses to ignore the strategies and recommendations that address many of her stated opinions,” Chapdelaine wrote. “While I cannot speak for other members of the TSBC as they have yet to comment on Rachel’s letter, I can tell you Tappé has addressed the north light and indirect light opinions expressed by Ms. Orr. The school currently has five or six classrooms dependent on north light. The kindergarten rooms are the same rooms that have been in use since they were added in 1993. The teacher who has taught in those rooms for years welcomes the reduction of windows and supports the recommended schematic design. The areas to be dependent on north light, light referred to as the ‘second best’ light by leading architects, are areas of transitional use; the gymnasium, industrial arts, the cafeteria, and the media/library/commons areas. This is a factual improvement over existing conditions. Yes, the kitchen may benefit from skylights, and this will be vetted with the staff and the professional team during design development. There are multiple lighting strategies available to architects for meeting the lighting challenges in a renovation/addition, and Tappé has demonstrated their capability to do so, and will also refine this in design development.”

Chapdelaine said that Orr voted to back the schematic design and site plan back in February, and is backtracking. He also contended that Orr was critiquing on matters previously vetted by the committee, and also critiquing matters beyond her expertise.

“Every item on her list has been part of previous conversations by the TSBC inclusive of the professional team,” Chapdelaine wrote. “She delves into programming and educational practices with no expertise in these areas, after the faculty representatives on the TSBC have vetted and approved the schematic design. Rachel continues with criticisms of the architectural and design work of Tappé and their professional associates regarding universal accessibility, lighting, building orientation, and sound management, [seemingly] ignoring all the committee discussions and review that went into the decisions that contributed to the recommended schematic design. She revisits the placement of the additions, their size and scope, in an attempt to imply the TSBC failed to incorporate passive solar gain as a design goal. In this opinion Ms. Orr forgets the objective to preserve the historical integrity of the 1929 building, she fails to recognize building a large addition toward the cemetery would greatly reduce the playground the site provides. All vetted by the TSBC.”

Chapdelaine’s conclusion was that Orr’s criticisms struck him as counterproductive, but he would nevertheless make sure they were carried forward and presented to the next Tisbury School building committee for the next phase of the project. Chapdelaine told The Times Tuesday the present committee will be disbanded June 30. 

“While I believe Ms. Orr’s writing undermines work that has been completed,” Chapdelaine wrote, “work validated through the vote of the TSBC and subsequently verified by the approval of minutes, I committed to forwarding Ms. Orr’s thoughts to the next TSBC for consideration during the design development phase of the project.” 

Orr told The Times Tuesday that she presented the letter to the committee last week upon request. She said she had “no idea” a vote to approve a letter of endorsement back in the winter would somehow negate other critical stances she took prior to that at other meetings on the project. Orr said she hasn’t yet spoken to Chapdelaine about her letter. 



  1. Why wasn’t this letter of immediate interest to the committee?
    What this sounds like is a takedown of any criticism of this final design, which was approved by the committee without a word of public input months ago. Nothing to see here!
    Has anyone else in VH noticed these issues? We are starting at 55 million and counting, for a shrinking school population in the town with the highest tax rate (I know, Harold’s projections are higher.) Every time the design is changed will mean more money will be spent. This is called a change order.
    Why not continue for a bit longer to get a better design? By the way, Rachel is the one who, as the first chairman of the TSBC, answered some of the questions asked in the first go-round, including the question of the integrity of the existing building.
    I fear for anyone who dares challenge this committee at town meeting. Hold the tomatoes.

    • Dear Ms. Laursen,
      Have you seen or made any ethics or open meeting law complaints regarding the Tisbury School Building Committee? Were all their meetings posted per state law? Were topics discussed and voted upon in public? Were minutes reviewed and approved in public? Was the public able to attend those meetings? It is unfortunate that the democratic process of committees and voting doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Sometimes committee members get out voted. It does not mean they were not heard. This smacks of a committee member who did not get their way trying to go around the committee process to undermine the recommendations of the majority. You asked for a “no” vote on April 17, 2018 to the new building and requested a renovation and addition. This is the project the current committee has come up with. Will you support it now?

  2. WOW…..I did not know what I was voting for? Are you kidding me, from a former Chair of the committee? Thank Covid for Zoom. I went to the Tisbury School Building Website and watched the zoom: https://player.vimeo.com/video/535073571?dnt=1&app_id=122963 Somewhere about an hour in. Ms. Orr did not appear confused at all during that zoom. She offered edits. The document was on the screen for all to see and read. Not sure there is much credibility left after this whopper. Take a look at the pictures of the front of the Tisbury School on the Website. What kind of ramp would need to be built to make the front entrance Handicapped accessible? How many windows would need to be covered up for the switch backs? Those precious windows that Ms. Orr is trying to protect, she is now recommending covering up. Also notice that the entrance door is half way between floors. What would it cost the town to fix that issue. This smacks of 3 years ago with the infamous letter of 14. Another last minute attempt to cloud the uninformed voters with doubt. Don’t buy it…watch the zoom. Then determine for yourself if this is credible. I would resign after telling a big lie and getting caught. Zoom did not lie.

  3. Hello Marie and thank you for sharing your opinions now and in the past.
    The letter was and is important to the TSBC and the community. The letter was received and taken under advisement for review of the content and to be discussed at a future meeting. As a chairperson who has tried to facilitate this process as ‘fact based’ it was my judgement that all members of the TSBC be afforded time to read, research and respond to Ms. Orr’s submittal.
    The TSBC has held 46public meetings. All of which since March of 2020 been held via Zoom. The TSBC has also met in public with the Selectboard, Planning Board, Historical Commission, Finance and Energy Committees. I have personal volunteered to host Zoom coffee-talks and answered endless questions regarding the school project. The public has had numerous opportunities to contribute and learn the facts driving the design process.
    The school enrollment projections are not mine they are from New England School Development Council and they project an increase to 390 students in the year 2029. However, we are building a school that will handle that increase but is predicated on the existing Ed-Program and todays 285+/- students. The Tisbury School is a k-8 two class per grade facility and that is a fact. To reduce the size of the school to a one class per grade we need see an enrollment decrease of about 100 students. A huge departure from existing and projected enrollments.
    With respect to your speculation to ‘change orders’ they are not inevitable but we are in the Schematic Design (SD) phase of the project after funding we move to the Design Development (DD) phase of the project where all of the detailed design and engineering takes place.
    You ask for us to wait longer. Waiting will not change the plans. They will not develop any further than they are today in SD phase and projects do not move into DD until funded. While you ask to wait, I can tell you waiting cost money. Commercial construction increases are historically in the 5% range. For this project that translates to $2.7m in the first year.
    While many do not understand the difference in the scope of work between SD and DD the TSBC pushed Tappe’ to meet the guiding principles and design goals set forth by the TSBC to get to where we are today.
    This addition/renovation is three years since the voters choose not to fund a new building. Two space needs assessment were completed by two separate architectural firms. The two studies provided for a school in the 73,000 to 75,000 square foot range. Waiting doesn’t change the need it only forestalls the remedy.
    I am confident the sitting TSBC has done a thorough job and we have a stellar Professional Team who has gone the extra mile to serve the Town.

  4. Although grateful to Rachel Orr’s service on the building committee her objections to this project are deeply concerning. I am a homeowner in Tisbury, my 4th grade son currently attends the school and my preschooler will be a kindergartner in the fall of 2022. It seems important to note that the long time kindergarten teacher on the building committee fully supports this project. In fact, she has publicly stated the importance of not having too much light shining into the classroom related to glare. She has also pointed out that their current windows look out onto a parking lot and dumpster. Like many teachers she, along with parents of children at the Tisbury school, would prioritize a safe building without crumbling lead paint and asbestos, mold, inadequate ventilation and space for schooling. This is not to mention the serious fiscal implications of voting this project down. The current project is supported by our Town Selectboard and Town Finance Committee. Our Town Finance Director has said “If the town decides not to move ahead with the renovation this year, we can expect that a future project of this scope will cost significantly more.
    ● Construction costs on Martha’s Vineyard are increasing at an annual rate of an estimated 5%, well over general inflation rates.
    ● We expect the construction cost of a future project to increase to approximately $63 million in three years, 16% higher than today.
    ● Future financing rates may be higher than they are now.” (https://tisbury-school-project.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/TisburySchoolProjectCommentary_TownTreasurer_2021-05-19.pdf). This project is a intelligent investment the Town’s largest facility. A major design factor was making the community spaces in the building universally accessible. This financial analysis does not even account for the costs to secure the building envelope and stop continued degradation of hazardous materials while waiting for a new project. A third project involves costs for reports and designs along with Town costs as more and more parents school choice their children to other Towns.

    After attending numerous building committees and Zoom information sessions I have heard careful explanation from the architect around the design choices that have been made and am confident in his professional abilities and experience in designing schools. It’s time to get this done. I hope we have all learned our lesson from the last time around.

  5. I believe we have seen this play before. A letter of opposition in the final hours before a very important vote. It worked last time. Please Tisbury, do not let it work this time. I have listened in on many of the meetings. Yes, they are also recorded, so I can watch them at other times. This project has been incredibly transparent. Zoom has made it easier than ever to participate if one wants too. I am sorry our town voted No last time around. I believe this committee has answered the call. The renovation and addition while maintaining the “beloved” exterior has been thoughtfully designed. It’s time to vote YES!

  6. Please vote yes
    The heart and soul of the vineyard is how well we care for and educate our children

    I am so impressed by the transparent democratic process that has been followed
    I thank all the people who have worked so hard to arrive at this plan
    Now let’s get going and start building

    Nancy S Cotton PhD
    Child psychologist

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