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.”