The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) is closer than it’s been in years to being accepted into the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Core Program, with tens of millions of dollars in potential grant funding available for a building project if it lands a spot on the list.
The MSBA is a state entity that provides funding for capital improvement projects in school districts. The program is funded by a one-cent contribution from the 6.25 percent sales tax that state residents pay, and is available to any Massachusetts school district that wants to apply.
Each year, school districts apply to the program, and are accepted or denied based on the level of need, and the confidence MSBA officials have in the particular district to design and complete a project.
At a special MVRHS school committee meeting Thursday, committee members voted unanimously to send a draft letter to Island select boards requesting their good-faith support for a feasibility study that would be the first step in entering into the MSBA application process.
“It’s a long-term program where the MSBA is your partner in developing a school project. They bring expertise on building, funding strategies, design development, and procurement. They are in the business to build schools and provide resources so districts can make necessary improvements,” committee chair Amy Houghton said.
The high school has applied to the program for the past seven years, and in 2019, failed to move through a feasibility study for a building project when Oak Bluffs voted down allocating its share of funding for the study due to disagreements over the historically utilized statutory assessment formula.
Now, according to Houghton, the MSBA has asked the school and the Island to “show our best foot forward,” and prove that the school and the towns will make a good-faith effort to work together on a feasibility study, and eventually reach a start point for an actual project.
In the high school’s case, the MSBA could support a project by as much as 35 or 40 cents on the dollar after the study is complete and MVRHS is part of the Core Program.
“The opportunity for the Vineyard is significant. There has been lots of discourse about this because at the end of the day, it relates to the funding formula across the district,” Houghton said. She stressed that the amount of money the state authority would provide for a project is so significant that it may diminish the extra cost burden felt by towns with a higher student population.
Houghton warned committee members of what happened in Tisbury, where the Tisbury School district was accepted into the MSBA process, went through a feasibility study and design development, but ultimately failed to undertake the project because the town voted it down.
Now, Tisbury has pushed a building project forward that is going to cost significantly more, there are no state funds available, and school officials don’t have the benefit of the expertise the MSBA would have provided.
“The MSBA is saying, ‘You are on the short list, and we want to fund your school, but we want to have confidence that this is not going to end up in a wrangling between the towns of who pays more and who pays less,’” Houghton said, adding that the high school has been desperately in need of infrastructure upgrades for years, and decisionmakers have been forced to put dollar after dollar into antiquated and degrading systems.
She said the lost opportunity in Tisbury should illustrate to the rest of the community how essential it is to work together toward a shared goal of supporting students.
If the school were to forgo the opportunity to request support of select boards in their application to the MSBA, Houghton explained, there is no guarantee they would be this close in the near future.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said usually after submitting the school district’s statement of interest to the MSBA, he receives a call from the director of program management for the MSBA, Diane Sullivan, saying they are close to being accepted, but they didn’t make the cut.
This year, however, the authority has expressed a higher degree of optimism in the school. Even if Island select boards sign onto the letter to the MSBA, D’Andrea said, there is no guarantee they will be accepted.
“I get a strong sense from the pool of applicants this year that we are right at the top. But the MSBA is concerned about the disagreement about the formula between the towns, and we don’t want to get into another Dennis-Yarmouth situation,” D’Andrea said.
In 2018, Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District on Cape Cod was awarded a $44 million grant from the MSBA for a new middle school, but when it got down to starting the project, Yarmouth officials backed away, and the process was stymied.
“I think MSBA learned from that experience,” D’Andrea said. “If the towns can act now and show the MSBA we are ready to support a building project, they have resources available to us to get this done in the most efficient and effective way, and they have tens of millions of dollars to support us with.”
Now, D’Andrea will head around to Island select boards and advocate for the importance of a building project at MVRHS. But with the MSBA asking for a letter with select board blessings by Jan. 28, the high school is working under a tight deadline. The MSBA has a board meeting on Feb. 2 where they will discuss which districts to accept into the grant program.
Committee member Mike Watts asked what’s changed since 2019, and whether or not there is any confidence — particularly from the townspeople and officials of Oak Bluffs — that a building project or even a feasibility study would be supported.
“The MSBA is not dumb — they read the newspaper, they see where we have been over the last three or four years, so what’s changed, before we have any vote?” Watts asked.
Off to the races
In other business, the high school agreed at their meeting to allow for two school-owned buses to be used by organizers of the Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler Road Race on Saturday, Feb. 19, from 11 am to 5 pm. The school will provide their own employees to drive the buses, but the road race organizers have offered to reimburse the school any money they pay drivers.
At the start of the race, buses will pick up participants at the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven and shuttle them to the drop-off zone at the Edgartown park and ride. They will then wait until the first leg of runners are done to shuttle them back to the Oak Bluffs School finish line. Both buses will then shuttle runners and spectators who require a ride back to the Steamship Authority terminal starting line. The high school has customarily provided buses for the road race, as the race benefits the entire Island, and raises money for Island youth groups like the track and field team, the girls and boys varsity hockey teams, the eighth grade class field trip group, Minnesingers, the figure skating club, and the Touchdown Club.
D’Andrea said the school is fully insured, and alcohol will be prohibited on the buses.