Tisbury School: A $26 million crucible

Officials say plan B is modular classrooms at $85,000 per month.



In the face of $26 million in cost escalations, the Tisbury School committee gave an update Tuesday on the Tisbury School renovation and addition project. The “rock and a hard place” reality outlined at the meeting was that taxpayers either have to endorse school and town officials’ request for $26 million, tacked onto the $55 million already authorized for the project, or deal with $85,000 per month modular classrooms for an open-ended period of time. 

The committee’s update included a hardened stance that pupils wouldn’t be put back into the school under any circumstances due to hazardous conditions inside. 

“We have a sick building,” committee chair Amy Houghton said. “We have a building that has black mold. We have a building that has lead in the water. We have a building that has lead paint. We have a building that has asbestos.”

She added, “We have teachers who will walk away if they’re put back in that building, and there’s no option to put people back in that building.”

The modular classrooms were originally meant to serve as a temporary school during construction, but Houghton said those modulars are what amounts to plan B right now if the town doesn’t back the $26 million request. Essentially, she said, the modulars would become the school. The committee took the position that halting or redesigning the project was out of the question because of the costs associated with doing so. Houghton equated such maneuvers to squandering money already spent, and also said such actions would likely cause the contractors to walk away. Voters will be asked in September to approve the $26 million in extra funding at a special town meeting. It will take a two-thirds majority vote to approve the expenditure, which is expected to be borrowed through bonds. Still up in the air is whether or not voters will also have the opportunity to weigh in on the expenditure a second time through a ballot question at a special town election. 

The town of Tisbury has asked the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to waive the need for a ballot question. The town’s argument is essentially that Tisbury voters already backed the school project by approving $55 million for it both at a town meeting and at the polls, and the $26 million is merely an extension of that approval. 

Houghton described the school project as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the people of the town to contribute to a new school. She also said the committee is working on finding money from other places. 

“Asking the town to authorize additional funds,” she said, “does not mean that we cannot seek funds in alternate ways. Amending the allowable expenditure doesn’t preclude us from finding funding from alternate sources, so that all of this is not on the taxpayers’ dime. And we are committed to doing that. To date, we have reached out to Senator Markey, Representative Keating, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority), and the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) to try to identify ways in which the state and the feds may be able to help us with some offset in funding.”

Houghton went on to say, “Additionally, we are establishing a Friends of the Tisbury School Fund that will give us a vehicle to access folks who may have deep pockets — private donors, foundations, community organizations — that will be able to help support us in trying to defray some of the additional costs that will come with this project if the town is willing to move forward on the additional funds. We realize this is a terrible position that we’re in. It’s a terrible position that the town is in. And there’s a lot of finger pointing saying, you know, the school committee has demonstrated poor leadership.”

Houghton began to request people refrain from such accusations, but she trailed off and spoke to the project’s past. 

“The fact of the matter is that this town has had three opportunities to work on a school project, and for a variety of reasons, and I don’t want to get into finger pointing, but for a variety of reasons those projects have not gone forward,” Houghon said. She added that if folks abandon the current project for a new idea and the modulars are used longer than expected, there’s going to be staff attrition. Houghton later told The Times it was her understanding that such a loss of direction would be demoralizing for some folks, and they wouldn’t want to stay. 

“A lot of folks have said we can have another project,” Houghton said at the meeting. “But as of now, I haven’t seen any viable project from anyone who has any experience working on a municipal building of the size of a school that has come forward with an alternative that could work. And so I think that we’re doing the best we can as volunteers and trying to gather data, trying to gather support from people in the town, trying to look for alternate sources of funds. And we would endeavor to continue to do that, and we would really hope that others here and in the community would help us to do that as well.”

As The Times previously reported, the $26 million expenditure, should it pass, when coupled with the $55 million already authorized, would amount to an additional tax burden of $1,027 for a median house valued at $744,200. The special town meeting for the expenditure will take place on Sept. 20. The special election, if held, will be on Oct. 4. 

In response to criticism from resident Tony Peak, who said he didn’t believe Tisbury could handle the project and that the committee was asking too much of the town, committee member Michael Watts, who is also chair of the Tisbury School building committee, expressed his belief that Peak doesn’t encompass the viewpoint of the town and all its people. 

“I think it is very difficult for any one person to speak on behalf of our town,” Watts said. “As an individual, if it’s too much to pay, I think it’s appropriate to say that. I think it is very, very difficult because none of us speak for all voters … We’ve done the math, we’ve shown everybody what it is. Everybody should stand up and vote the way they can. For some people, they can afford it. We can’t say Tisbury can’t afford it. That’s not appropriate. Individuals can’t afford it.”

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools Superintendent Richie Smith confirmed plan B would be the modulars. “That is going to be the option,” Smith said, “to have our children in frankly a better interior space than what they’re in now.”

Smith went on to say, “We need to have this community come together and start building this building.” 


  1. No one explains why the modulars are 85k per month. Buy or build modulars for the school which would be nowhere near 55mm. The article missed the word ”additional” on the $1027 tax burden.

    • Andy, can you explain where double wides can be rented for less than $85,000 a month?
      Also explain why you have failed to give the town the leadership it deserves.
      You have all the Right answers.

  2. Nice to see a few numbers as alternatives.
    Let me point out that this article states that the building has asbestos,lead in the water, lead paint and who knows what else? It’s a “sick building” for sure.
    So $85,000 a month for the modular classrooms that are currently on site.
    As I pointed out before, an $82 million loan for 30 years has a monthly payment of $440,193.
    The kids are already in them this year–
    I suggest we spend a few hundred grand, tear this polluted pig down, and while we try to figure out what to do next, make a nice playground , have some outdoor classe on nice days, (there are plenty of them ) and expand the nice vegetable garden they already have.
    Maybe even get some chickens– (can’t wait to hear the outcry to that suggestion)
    But, have you ever watched children when they are around chickens ?

    • Don, your idea makes way too much sense to be actually followed. There’s no way there will be consensus on doing the right thing and tearing down the “polluted pig” and starting from scratch.

  3. Just an abject disaster, through and through. Shame on the people leading this project, who have accomplished the impressive feat of making the wrong decision at virtually every opportunity.

  4. There are other approaches Those running and directing this project need to realize it has failed
    Modules are in place
    Use them for the next few years as we find a better way
    I will attend the coming special meeting and vote NO for additional money
    On the backs of regular residents we are expected to carry the additional economic burden forever and for some of us it will hurt the quality of life here in the Island

    • John, We will also be attending and ==> 2 No Votes here also !
      Especially seeing we just saw what our giant new real estate taxes will be!!

  5. Add to that:
    1) Everyone I know who has children in the school has moved to another town or has their house on the market.
    2) Our homes have appreciated at a lower rate than other towns making it harder to move.
    3) Most of the people I know can barely afford the raise in taxes we have had in the last year and several people will be forced to sell and leave if you add another $1000 or more to their tax bills.
    4) And these are the people who do meals on wheels, who volunteer at Chicken Alley, and cover all kinds of other volunteer work.
    So this proposal of just “throw it in the backs of the taxpayers” will not get you where you want to go.
    And by the way, some of those “deep pockets” have already left town because they could see the writing on the wall and did not want to have to pay for the mistakes of others.

  6. It may be a sick building by modern standards but is there any empirical evidence that anyone – child or adult – has become sick directly because he or she attends school or works there? If not, perhaps an excessive sense of urgency is propelling forward an ill-conceived plan.

    • Empirical Evidence: To be clear, someone needs to get catastrophically ill AND be able to prove it to a scientific standard before you think this is an urgent concern?! We know that the problems that make this a “sick building” are not healthy to work in for children or adults. Is that not enough? I’m no lawyer, but ignoring this for the foreseeable future after acknowledging it at multiple public meetings for the better part of a decade doesn’t sound like an excellent way to avoid liability.

    • steve– It’s pretty hard to prove that someone who died last week did so because they went to that school 60 years ago. But we do know that some substances have an adverse effect on humans. I don’t think there are many parents who would put their kids in there and hope for the best.
      Plus, the current plan to renovate this poison pig is ridiculous and overpriced.
      Simple as that.

  7. Ellen Miller is absolutely correct!

    Tisbury’s leadership has been a pitiful, disgraceful shame for many many years.
    Those of us unable to leave are screwed!

      • The town voted to retain the historic building. Remember?
        It is a fact that some evidence of the extent to which the building had been neglected by its stewards—those with legal responsibility for the school plant as well as the educational program— came to light later.

        • “The town voted to retain the historic building. Remember?”

          It still doesn’t qualify as a “historic” building. It didn’t 10 years ago, nor 5, nor today. That’s an actual designation with real implications, which this building doesn’t meet. Saying that it is won’t make it so.

          “It is a fact that some evidence of the extent to which the building had been neglected by its stewards—those with legal responsibility for the school plant as well as the educational program— came to light later.”

          Is it now? Have the legal proceedings for such criminal negligence begun? Seems like that would have made the paper!

          Or is this just inflammatory hyperbole? Isn’t it funny when “facts” turn out to be just words you said were facts? We used to have a term for those…

          • “It still doesn’t qualify as a “historic” building.”

            Tisbury voters chose to retain this building, expressing their view that the school building has historic significance to their town.

            Did Ms. Byrne publish any comments or letters in local newspapers at the time of the vote? I don’t recall them, but correct me if I am wrong.

        • In 2012, in Article 25, the Town of Tisbury voted to give the Tisbury School Department $40,000 “to fund a comprehensive facility needs study of the Tisbury School.”
          This study was carried out by Flansburgh Architects. In their detailed report they stated that “overall the building systems are in fair to good condition . . . The exterior envelope is in good condition . . . ” Their report included detailed info on upgrades.

          Regarding “historic value”: The Tisbury School was designed by S. Wesley Haynes of the architectural firm of Haynes & Mason, Fitchburg, Mass., in the Colonial Revival style. The same firm designed the Teaticket School and the Central Fire House in Falmouth. Both of these buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places (photos at Wiki entries).
          Details of the Falmouth Central Fire Station:
          “The Central Fire Station is a historic fire station at 399 Main Street in Falmouth, Massachusetts. . . . The brick is laid in Flemish bond, and there are wooden quoins at the corners. The central doorway is flanked by pilasters, and is topped by a fanlight.”

          The Tisbury School also was gifted with a painting by Frank Forrest Frederick (1866–1942) of the American School, who had a residence in West Chop, in honor of the school’s opening. This painting has disappeared. Perhaps it was stolen.

          ##https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S._Wesley_Haynes (the Tisbury School is not listed here)

  8. The point is, if there are no known examples of anyone getting ill from the environment, a targeted remediation would seem a much better solution than a total reboot. Sure we all know the existing conditions are bad things, but we also might hope to find a better solution than to spend something like 2 to 3 times the town’s entire annual operating budget to prevent possible, but highly uncertain, harm to people up to 60 years down the road. Just my view.

  9. No one explains why costs for the new Tisbury school rose so quickly. No one mentions the rampant spending spree of the current federal administration: no budget, just spend. Even thinking that spending billions more will reduce the inflation! What is the solution to all this? Don’t vote Democrat.

    • james– the stated reason was because of a rapid rise in the costs of building materials.
      But that doesn’t fit with reality. Even if the price of building materials rose by 50% , that does not translate into a 50% rise in the cost of the entire project.

      Republicans spend just as much money as democrats.
      Spending under Obama increased by 500 billion over 8 years.
      Spending under trump increased by 3.1 trillion in just 4 years.
      That’s an increased rate of spending by the trump administration of 6x what Obama did in 1/2 the time.

      The difference is republicans give money to the wealthy and large corporations, the democrats invest in the future with projects ( like green energy) that will benefit the people.
      Don’t vote republican.

      And don’t vote for the costly renovation of a hundred year old building.
      Vote for a new school.

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