Tisbury voters approved a $55 million renovation and addition project during a special town meeting Sunday.
In a 237-5 vote, voters approved a plan to borrow $55 million over 30 years through a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion to pay for the project — $53 million for the actual construction and the rest to help pay for temporary classrooms on town-owned land on Spring Street.
The vote was taken under a tent within a golf shot of the existing Tisbury School and children could be seen and heard playing on the nearby basketball courts. There was applause from the voters and some hugs as town moderator Deborah Medders read the results.
The project must now win support on the town ballot Tuesday, June 22, at the town’s Emergency Services Facility. There will also be an early voting day on June 17 at the same location.
Town leaders acknowledged the hefty price tag, while vowing to seek state and federal grants, as well as accepting private donations for the project to offset the impact on property owners and even exploring ways for seniors to work off their tax obligations by doing some work for the town.
According to numbers provided by finance director Jon Snyder, the project would increase taxes 10 percent on average and on a property valued at $680,000 — the town’s median property value — that would mean $628 per year.
This is the second time voters have been asked to do something about the crumbling infrastructure known as Tisbury School. The 1929 building is showing its age and has had issues with lead and asbestos. The renovation and addition project would take the building down to its studs with all heating and ventilation, as well as wiring, replaced, building committee chair Harold Chapdelaine told voters in a detailed walk through the proposal.
Voters rejected a less expensive project that would have torn down the existing building and replaced it with a new Tisbury School. That project, despite having a state grant that would have contributed $14 million, lost by 21 votes in 2018 and was seen as a mandate to keep the existing building.
Wiet Bacheller, a retired Tisbury School teacher, said she’s scared that there will be a repeat of what happened in 2018 — the school wins at town meeting and then loses at the ballot box. “I am scared to death that on June 23..,” Bacheller said before being interrupted by someone who said the election is on June 22. Bacheller continued: “On June 23 I wake up and a nightmare occurred. So please vote yes. I’ll get you there if you don’t have a car. I’ll make you egg rolls for ‘Yes’.”
Select board member Jeff Kristal said town leaders have let the children down by not providing a better environment for education. He called the last vote one of the town’s most divisive issues.
“To heal together, to rebuild our trust in one another, while we rebuild we rebuild a new school together,” he said.
During his presentation, select board chair Jim Rogers called the school building the “cornerstone of Tisbury history.”
Amy Houghton, chair of the Tisbury School Committee, talked about the collaboration between her board and the select board on the project. “It develops a community center we can all be proud of,” she said of the renovation and addition proposed.
As John Custer, principal of Tisbury School, spoke about the need he appeared to get emotional. His comments were met by applause, some of the voters standing to recognize his efforts to keep the school’s positive vibe under difficult conditions. “I believe there is no more important building in a town than its school,” he said, calling it a “tremendous and wonderful responsibility” to oversee the school community.
The town’s presentation on the project took an hour of the two-hour special town meeting. At the end several voters yelled, “Vote.” But Medders allowed speakers for the next hour, though she wouldn’t allow them to stray from the scope of the article asking them to stick to the finances and the educational plan. Questions about the design flaws were quickly gaveled out of order by Medders.
Voter Lilian Robinson, who serves on the town’s conservation commission, rose several times to ask questions and offer her concerns about the project.
Later when voter Peter Sham called for the vote, Medders refused to take a vote on his motion and continued to allow further comment.
Most of those speakers were emphatically in favor of the project.
“I do like the design,” Peter Goodale said. “The price is going to keep going up. Next time it’s going to be $100 million. Inflation is hitting hard now.”
Ana Cotton, who has a child in the school and one approaching school age, said it’s possible the school could have a detrimental effect on real estate values if something isn’t done. “I don’t know if schools can be condemned, but I wonder if this one would be.”
Trip Barnes, a town representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, got cheers when he said: “It’s going to be very expensive, but you know what? I don’t care. Let’s build a god damned school now.”
Voters were clearly there to vote yes. Several speakers acknowledged the hard part is now translating that into a win at the polls where the project only has to win by a simple majority rather than the two-thirds that was required at town meeting.
“I want this school renovation and restoration to go forward,” voter Jean Hay said. “We’re not hearing from the people who may not be in favor of this.”