The town of Tisbury will apply to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) to seek additional funds for the Tisbury School renovation and addition project without a townwide ballot vote. A town meeting vote would still be required.
A year ago, voters authorized $55 million to be borrowed for the school’s massive overhaul of the 1929 building, but inflation and other issues already have the project as much as $10 million over budget. The school building committee has been looking at areas to save money on the project, while still delivering the project voters approved at town meeting and then again at the polls.
At a briskly paced select board meeting Monday, board members Roy Cutrer and John Cahill authorized the application to DOR. Chair Larry Gomez was absent from the meeting.
The town is waiting for a final construction number to come in. Town administrator Jay Grande told the board he expects a guaranteed maximum price by August 8. At a meeting of the school building committee ahead of the select board meeting, Grande said he is looking to schedule a special town meeting in September to ask voters to support the additional borrowing.
That vote would require a two-thirds majority vote, Grande told the select board.
“We will have sufficient information in which to apply to the Department of Revenue on the higher end of whatever that supplemental appropriation will be,” he said.
The process at hand is applying to the DOR, and if they find the borrowing consistent with the prior ballot vote, the state could exempt the need for a ballot vote, Grande said. “Town meeting is required under any scenario — this really impacts on whether we have to proceed with a ballot question,” Grande said.
Proposition 2½ debt exclusions require both a town meeting vote of two-thirds majority and a majority vote at the polls.
The application to the DOR is expected to be filed by the end of the week, he said.
Economic factors that occurred after the project was underway are affecting the need to borrow more money, Grande said. “Our understanding is that the DOR is aware of this, and they must be dealing with similar stresses on other projects due to inflation,” he said.
Finance committee member Nancy Gilfoy asked if there was a chance the DOR could turn down the application and that a ballot would be necessary.
“That could be, I don’t know,” Grande said. “My understanding is it’s a review and approval process, so I assume they could condition, limit that request. I’ve never applied for this. This is new territory.”
The select board is expected to discuss the school project further at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday at 4 pm.
At a meeting just prior to the select board meeting Monday, the Tisbury School building committee received an update on progress. The portable classrooms have all been delivered, and are now connected and in place. They still need to install underground utilities and plumbing tie-ins, Harvey Eskena, a senior project manager for W.T. Rich, said.
According to Michael Owen, the owner’s project manager for the construction project, the goal is to move teachers and students into the temporary school over the Christmas holiday. A piano was moved to the Edgartown School using local movers from Carroll’s to keep the costs down, he said.
“We’re very pleased the Edgartown School was willing and able to take that,” Principal John Custer said of the piano.
Next month, contractors will work on separating the gym from the rest of the school building to prepare for abatement and demolition in early September. Barriers will be used to block dust and debris from the rest of the school, he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of action; buckle up,” Eskena said.
In answer to a question from Sarah York, Custer said that when the school year begins, students will have recess on the west playground. Physical education will be held outside as weather permits, he said.
The building committee also updated Eskena on the work being done to arrive at the guaranteed maximum price for the project through Option 3. Option 3 is a plan to remove square footage from the administration offices and hold back on window and masonry restoration, as well as some site work, to reduce the additional costs to about $3.9 million from $10 million. These numbers will become better established through the guaranteed maximum price process.
Eskena explained that W.T. Rich can meet with subcontractors and negotiate with them about their scope of work, and has some latitude on whether to accept the lowest bid.
Elaine Miller, a member of the Tisbury planning board, said she’s hopeful the town will be getting the same project that was voted on in 2021. “We want to make sure they are not buying short — in 10 years, we don’t want to say, We really needed this,” she said. She went on to say, “I would like to see it done the right way, and at today’s cost.”
Owen said the most important thing is protecting the educational program in any changes that are made.
Harvey added that any cost reductions will be done while keeping the spirit of the design.
Ben Robinson, another planning board member, said, “Option 3 is nickel-and-diming the project to death. People need to be really aware that the project they are going to get is going to reflect that in the material choices and the finishes, and perhaps the engineering.”
Owen disagreed, calling it an “inappropriate comment.” He said that value engineering is being done with the educational program in mind. “There has been nothing compromised in either quality or integrity of the structure,” he said.
Former select board member Melinda Loberg asked what would happen if the additional money isn’t approved by voters, and the items that are set aside are not funded.
Building committee chair Michael Watts said it would present “some challenges” if there’s a no vote.
Grande said voters will know the guaranteed maximum price when they vote. He added there really isn’t any other option. “To start with another option would be going back to Square 1, and that’s a very costly thing,” he said referring to the decision in 2018 to reject a brand-new school on the site. “I do not recommend doing that a third time.”
Updated to add information from the school building committee. Intern Natalie Aymond contributed to this story. -Ed.