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.