High school applies to MSBA for seventh time

State building authority wants to see synergy between Island towns before considering MVRHS for funding assistance.

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School officials will apply for state funds for Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, even though the state has rejected the bid for six years in row.

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) is submitting its seventh statement of interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), with collective buy-in from Island towns as the main caveat to acceptance.

So far, the high school has been denied admission to the building program — which provides significant amounts of need-based funding for school capital projects — for six consecutive grant cycles.

At MVRHS, there is a major need for a total building overhaul, and with the deadline to submit SOIs on Friday, June 25, school officials voted at Tuesday’s MVRHS school committee meeting to move forward with the application, despite trepidation from some members.

School business administrator Mark Friedman explained that the high school will be applying to the MSBA Core Program, which focuses on larger, long-term capital projects. 

The other program of the MSBA, called the Accelerated Repair Program (ARP), is for smaller, immediate needs.

“The MSBA said they really didn’t feel [the ARP] was appropriate for us, given the scope of what we are looking at for the high school. The core program is to address schools that may need something more than just a roof replacement, or to replace one old boiler with a new boiler,” Friedman said.

Friedman said that after the applications are submitted by schools around the state, the MSBA considers all submissions over the summer and into the fall, at which point they make decisions “somewhere around Thanksgiving to Christmas.”

Committee member Amy Houghton, who was recently voted in to serve as chair, voiced her concern that there isn’t a strong enough understanding of the building project, and of the comprehensive visioning plan that is being created by Tappé Architects for the school.

“If this were to go forward and all of a sudden we have to act, the timeframes within the MSBA are so strict, I am just wondering if it’s really feasible for us to do this right now. I know that we don’t want to turn the money away from the state, but I feel like we almost have the cart before the horse here,” Houghton said. 

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said Chris Blessen of Tappé is working on putting the vision document together, and it should be all wrapped up by the end of this summer. 

At that point, the document will be sent to the school building committee, which is comprised of school committee members and Island select board members.

If the building committee approves the plan, D’Andrea said, he will bring it next to the school committee for consideration.

Once the document has been approved, D’Andrea will call a meeting of the town representatives, the building committee, school committee members, and the MSBA.

“The MSBA has recommended this to us, and they have recommended it because they want to help us, and they recognize the fact that we need a building project,” he said. “But they will not admit us into the program until all of the towns support a building project. They know what’s going on — they have read the papers here on the Island, and they want all the towns to support a project.”

On the other end of the equation, Island towns have indicated in the past that they would be willing to consider moving ahead with a building project if the school brings them a fully fleshed-out vision for what they want the future of the high school to look like. 

Although getting all the towns onboard with a visioning plan and a vote to support such a major capital project would place the high school in a more favorable light in the application and review process, D’Andrea said the MSBA isn’t suggesting any kind of guaranteed approval.

“They seem reluctant to say, ‘Oh, if you do this we will do that,’ but they certainly have reached out and said, ‘We recognize you need help, but we don’t want to commit resources to a project that will ultimately fail,’” D’Andrea said.

In 2019, Oak Bluffs voted down allocating its share of funding for a feasibility study for a high school building project. The regional funding formula was cited as the roadblock for Oak Bluffs voters, with school committee member Kris O’Brien saying at that annual town meeting that she’s “tried for a year to say the funding formula is not working for the town of Oak Bluffs … and it’s falling on deaf ears.”

Houghton said the elephant in the room is the fact that even with MSBA support, the towns will all need to vote to approve a capital building project — which largely hinges on the long-debated acceptance or rejection of the existing regional funding formula.

“The only way we can do this is if we can agree on how to fund it. If there is absolutely no interest on the part of some towns to come together, I don’t see how we can move forward,” Houghton said. “Having been part of that regional discussion, and how people were really in concrete as far as their willingness to move forward an inch, I find it hard to believe that we can pull this off.”

D’Andrea stressed that the SOI costs nothing to submit, and the high school has zero chance of receiving the up to $40 million in need-based funding for a facilities reboot if they pass on the application. “We can work to try and get this vision, get the towns together, and give it another shot,” he said.

O’Brien said she hesitates to support the submission when she isn’t even sure what the building project would entail, as a member of the school committee. “We need to convene that building committee, get the vision together, and explain it out very well to the community, so we can get everyone to understand what needs this project is going to meet,” O’Brien said. 

She added that Oak Bluffs didn’t vote down the feasibility study simply to leverage a lower cost to the town from the funding formula, but that the town is concerned with the formula “on a grander scale.”

“I have an issue with the entire school funding formula being put upon an enrollment cost, as opposed to looking at, say, a tax evaluation for the capital expenses. That is a high school that is used by the entire Island, and that should be reflected in the funding formula,” O’Brien said. The existing regional funding formula stretches back to 1956, and splits costs into capital and operating costs. Towns fund the high school’s budget based on respective enrollments from the preceding year. 

Committee member Kim Kirk wondered what the input from the MSBA really means for the future of the school, and whether they are implying that cooperation between Island towns would secure an acceptance into the building program. “Are you conveying that the MSBA is hinting we are on the short list, and we are going to be approved, and that the Island of Martha’s Vineyard is going to jump ahead of communities like Fall River and Worcester — low-income communities who have dilapidated schools? We are going to leapfrog ahead on the short list?” Kirk asked.

“They have indicated that we have been on the short list for a number of years, and that before admitting us into the program, they would need all towns to express their support for a building project,” D’Andrea said.

O’Brien was the only dissenting vote against submitting an application to the MSBA. “That’s a long short list,” O’Brien responded, “because I heard that same thing when I was chair, and I was chair four years ago.”