Tisbury select board torpedos school ballot 

Grande calls efforts to defeat $26 million in school funding ‘ludicrous.’

These $85,000 per month temp classrooms may be in use longer than anticipated if voters fail to approve $26 million in additional school costs. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated 8:09 pm

The Tisbury select board made it clear on Wednesday it had no appetite to hold a special town election for $26 million in additional funds to pay for the Tisbury School renovation and addition project. Following debate, the board unanimously rescinded the special town election. The select board previously set a special town meeting (Sept. 20) for the sole reason of addressing the $26 million request. This remains in place. The board learned Monday it had been granted a Proposition 2½ waiver from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR), and therefore it wouldn’t need to hold a special town election on the same funding request. The DOR letter indicated a special town election was no longer required, but noted the town could still hold such an election if it wished to do so. 

Select board vice chair Roy Cutrer took particular issue with the notion of two votes on the $26 million request, and evoked the narrow ballot box defeat of a previous school project that sported significant state funding. “I’m going to say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” Cutrer said. “And we need to remember the history that created this situation.”

Cutrer described the 2018 project as a “total rebuild of the school,” with millions of Massachusetts School Building Authority dollars in play: “We approved it in town meeting, and because of actions of some people, we went to town vote and … we lost it.”

The loss at the ballot box ruined the state’s support of the project, Cutrer said. The town went back to the drawing board, he said, with the wish of the townspeople to instead do a refurbish and addition project, and the Tisbury School building committee went on to deliver plans for such a project. “Now, delaying this project further,” he said, “can only increase the cost.”

Tisbury voters were originally asked to support $55 million for the school renovation and addition project, which they did both at annual town meeting and the annual town election. 

Cutrer said, “We all know that prices go up — except for gas, gas seems to be coming down — prices go up, but they don’t normally come down. So for us to scrap this project, put ourselves right back where we were a couple years ago …”

Cutrer went on to say, “My point is, we gave up millions of dollars, and we’re about to make the same mistake again. We have millions of dollars invested in this project and if we stop what we’re doing, if we stop the momentum that we have to get this project completed, then we are going to lose millions of dollars that we’ve already spent.”

“That’s my opinion also,’ select board chair Larry Gomez said. 

“You know, this is not an election of a person,” select board member John Cahill said. “This is a town decision. And I think what a better setting than … a town meeting where we can hopefully discuss it. And yes, there will always be people that are reluctant to speak out. But we need to set an environment where we encourage everyone to participate and have a healthy conversation on the topic, and then come to a conclusion. Because in the end, this really is up to the voters. We’re not denying anyone the ability to vote. They’re going to get that opportunity at that meeting. And I think it’s up to all of us to be able to say, Get out there, go to the meeting — you know, if you can go get your husband to go, get a friend to go — and speak up. And it’s a great setting for this topic.”

Former select board member Melinda Loberg said she was “really in favor of democracy,” and wanted a ballot vote. Loberg said it appeared to her there was a fear afoot that a ballot vote is an opportunity for the voters to reject the project. “And that just really doesn’t look good to me. So I’m in favor of allowing for democracy to take place by a ballot after a town meeting.”

Tisbury resident Tony Peak told the board neighbors often do not want to create friction with other neighbors who may have differing views, and the election format would convey anonymity you don’t get in a town meeting. 

“If you are going to not hold a town special election,” Peak said, “I would ask that you commit yourselves now to having an Australian ballot at the special town meeting.”

“The town moderator made it clear to me,” town administrator Jay Grande said, “that town meeting is, and what happens there — it’s the voters’ town meeting. The voters of the town determine how town meeting goes.” Grande said he saw no reason why the select board should intercede in how the voters vote at a town meeting. 

Grande said the town has invested $15 million to $17 million in the school project to date. If there’s a “no” vote, the town will have to “pick up the pieces” and look for another option. 

“I think the most cost-effective approach is following through on a project we’ve already started,” Grande said. “And it seems ludicrous that we would change course when we’re out of the starting gate.”

He said an “incredible amount of work and time” has gone into procuring bids and putting together documents. Grande said it has been hard to get bidders to commit to an Island job.

“Because you know what, there’s a lot of work off-Island, and they don’t need the hassle of coming over here,” he said. “So that’s plain talk. I think it’s ludicrous to think that you can pick up and go in another direction, delay. It would be foolhardy. That’s my opinion. I know not everyone agrees with me.”

Grande said Tisbury’s “open town meeting” is a form of government that has been employed for over 350 years, “way before Proposition 2½ was even thought about. It’s the most direct and pure form of democracy I believe that exists in the world.”

Grande went on to say the voters have an opportunity to participate in town meeting and address the school funding article. “It shouldn’t require two votes,” he said. “One vote should be sufficient enough to determine this matter.” 

School committee chair Amy Houghton previously said plan B, should voters reject the $26 million and effectively scuttle the project, would be longer-term use of temporary classrooms, which cost $85,000 per month. At Wednesday’s meeting, Houghton said folks shouldn’t be swayed by any ideas floating around that the school gym could avoid planned demolition and a rebuild, and instead be restored for less money. Houghton described such ideas as implausible, and essentially pipe dreams, based on how the gym is constructed. 

Planning board and Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Ben Robinson said a special town election has already been scheduled, and the “privacy of a ballot box” should be respected. Robinson added, “Often at town meetings we get around 200, maybe 300 people max, and at ballot votes we get over 1,000, so one is much more representative of the voters and the taxpayers of the town than the other.” 

The board also unanimously approved a modified warrant article for the special town meeting which slightly reduced the $26 million figure, to $25.6 million, and eliminated a ballot contingency. 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated no action had been taken on the special town election. 


  1. There’s a lot to unpack here. The town still has 55 million to do a renovation and addition. Denying the extra 28 million (not all due to inflation) will not kill the project, as Mr. Cutrer, who is a school employee and a member of the original school building committee, claims. The project will go on. The design can be adjusted. This 28 million dollar figure goes way beyond inflation and includes elements not in the original project.
    Furthermore, it was the voters who decided against the first project, not those who spoke out against it. That is democracy, not this embarrassing end run around the citizens. Those who can should go to the next selectman’s meeting on September 14 and say something, or write a letter/email to them.
    Mr. Grande, the selectmen, and the school committee are afraid of the voters who go to the polls, if not the town meeting. To say that this additional 28 million should be decided in one vote is encouraging hysteria and is disgraceful. I am comfortable voting no, and you, the voting citizens of Tisbury, should be, too.

    • Marie, let’s “unpack” your following statement regarding the vote for a new school in 2018. “Furthermore, it was the voters that decided against the project, not those who spoke out against it.”
      Majority of voters decided to vote no for a new school because days before the vote you, Ben Robinson, Tristan israel, Katherine Scott and several other members of the community wrote a letter to the editor of this paper which was published days before the vote implying that you had conducted exhaustive research and deduced a renovation of the school building would be significantly cheaper. “A renovation and addition may reduce the cost substantially to the town, by close to $11 million.” Well Marie, I guess we see how trusting you in the past has worked out for us.
      In the letter you also stated, “The savings may increase if the MSBA continues to participate.” You implied that we would continue to receive financial support from the state (grant money) if the community voted no for a new school. Marie, I’m a lay person and even I understood that it was made EXPLICITLY clear that the state would not offer us money for a renovation because they knew how expensive it would be. I find it hard to imagine that members of the select board and others that signed this letter to the editor were not clear about this point. You concluded your letter by stating, “Please consider voting no on April 24 on the prop 2 1/2 override, to allow the town to develop this considerably better alternative.” Is the current project the “considerably better alternative” that you referenced Marie? You and several of the people that signed this letter are outspoken critics about the current project! This is what YOU advised us to do Marie. If you are upset and looking to point fingers take a look in the mirror. Not one person that signed this letter has stepped forward and acknowledged their role in our current situation. Whether it was ignorance or more dubious blatant misleading the result was the same. Well done Marie. Well done.

      • Kate,
        Can’t people think for themselves? Many people objected to tearing down the school, as well as objecting to the design.
        I respect what others say and do at the polls. I always say when you lose, you lose; when you win, you celebrate like crazy.
        I have no regrets, other than wondering why this is all the fault of a letter written in 2018. Come on, Kate. Meanwhile, the collective neglect of the school building, which was finally shown to be a sturdy building by the second school building committee, continues to degrade.
        The Selectmen, school committee, and parents will all show up on September 20. All done in one vote! Authoritarianism at its’ best!
        Stay calm, Kate.

        • “Many people objected to tearing down the school, as well as objecting to the design.” The initial ballot lost by 20ish votes. I hope the sentimental and aesthetic objections were worth the taxpayers’ $50 million price differential between the first project and this one. $12.5 million dollar per year increase. That’s a lot of money for a failing brick facade.

          “I have no regrets, other than wondering why this is all the fault of a letter written in 2018.” Ah, isn’t a selective memory wonderful? You cosigned a Letter to the Editor. Your “analysis” (your words, not mine) was a signed by numerous town leaders, including multiple Select, Planning, and other board members. Within, you argued that a new school could be built for $20 million. Funny how the moment that project failed, those plans vanished. These leaders had a fiduciary responsibility to the town and abjectly failed them. A slim majority of voters believed the lot of you. Yet, the next Selectboard put one of your co-signatories as the CHAIR of the next building committee. Despite her best efforts, she saw that what she had been told to accomplish (meet the educational plan with a renovation-addition project at the current site) was impossible anywhere NEAR the price point your “analysis” had promised and left the committee just before the first vote.

          “Meanwhile, the collective neglect of the school building, which was finally shown to be a sturdy building by the second school building committee, continues to degrade.” You will not be able to find this information in the minutes from the last 60+ TSBC meetings. Why? It’s just false information. You know what is there? A tremendous amount of discussion about the failures of the structure itself. The building is in pretty poor shape and requires near-total renovation to remain a school. Hence, the scope of BOTH projects. No one would want to do (or pay for) more work than required, but it’s a 90-plus-year-old building at this stage.

          “All done in one vote!” Most votes are…

          “Authoritarianism at its’ best!” Please! How do I know that we don’t live in an authoritarian regime? Authoritarians don’t give you a chance to vote them out! You don’t like the leadership in the town? Vote them out. Can’t? Maybe you’re just unhappy that your opinions no longer reflect the majority. Throwing around inflammatory language at elected and appointed officials is a surefire way to ensure that no one of character or quality will want to step forward in the next few years. This type of malignant behavior festers within the community.

          To wrap up, in your 2018 “analysis,” you wrote “a general misconception is that new construction is less expensive than renovation. This is simply not the case.” I’m not sure how much more of this type of “less expensive” Tisbury taxpayers can afford, but I do know that your advice on this should be taken with the aforementioned knowledge.

  2. “Grande said he saw no reason why the select board should intercede in how the voters vote at a town meeting.” This in response to a request for a secret ballot at town meeting in lieu of a vote at the polls.
    Yet he saw no problem asking the state to waive the prop 2&1/2 override requirement. In fact, he stated at a recent selectman’s meeting that it would be a dereliction of duty not to ask the state for the waiver.
    Clearly there is an effort to keep the voters out who would go to the polls but not the town meeting.

  3. I want my `NO` Vote to be at the Polling Booth!
    I do not want to waste my time getting into Pi$$ing contests on town floor or at 5 Corners with people who’s agendas I totally disagree with.
    I can not remember when I last attended a Tisbury town meeting but I never missed voting by ballot.
    All is I know is our Tisbury leadership and committees have for years failed us (as has the County) so the Voting Booths are the only place for the people to have their real voices heard!

    Melinda Loberg was correct when she said “It seems to be there is a fear that if you have another ballot vote, there may be an opportunity for voters to turn it down again,”…. **Well said** Melinda and very true!
    Statistics show that often at town meetings we get maybe 300 people max, and at ballot votes we get over 1,000 so what does that tell you!

    Dont even think of taking our ballot voting rights away!!!

    • Woddy, your voting rights have not been taken away.
      You had the right to vote for the people now in office, or not.
      The people in office have the right to decide if you may have the right to vote on this issue, or not..
      We have a republican form of government.
      It is only democratic in the first instance.
      After that it is up to the people that we the people elected to decide what we the people will be allowed to vote on.
      Would you want it any other way?
      Do you want every elected officials decision to go to a ballot.
      Or just the one’s you disagree with?
      The only thing worse than Communism is a pure democracy.
      Everyone votes on everything.
      At least an election a week.

      • I think every very serious issue that could make or break many of us natives, seniors, veterans, handicapped folks etc. and being forced to leave because of incompetence and the crazy rising taxes should certainly go to a ballot.
        Who needs and can afford a trophy elementary school? Who`s fault is it anyways that the school is in such horrible shape?
        Plus I am not to happy with what they are teaching our kids in school now-a-day anyway but that is for another day.
        There is rumor about the actual student enrollement ~ is possibly declining in VH. Dont know what or who to believe!
        Many have absolutely no faith in our leaders from the top on down and not many people run for office anymore so we have to do what we have to do with what we got.
        BTW, it is `Woody`.

        • All votes at Town Meetings are secret.
          People who are too ‘busy’ to go to Town Meeting get what they deserve.
          Should every elected official’s decision be confirmed by a Special Election?

        • “Who needs and can afford a trophy elementary school?” The new plans are hardly a “trophy” – it’s as bare bones as one can make it given the guidelines the town gave the committee. A “renovation and addition project based on the current site” certainly tied some hands.

          “and being forced to leave because of incompetence…” If you think those running things are so poor, run for office and do better.

          “Who`s fault is it anyways that the school is in such horrible shape?” The bulk of the building was constructed in 1929. Fault hardly seems to come into play, but since you seem keen to find fault, let’s look in the mirror: Every year for two decades, THE TOWN asked school committees and leadership to keep costs below certain thresholds/percentages. When the town faced hard times during the great recession, they asked the school to keep budgets razor tight. When town (and nation) saw the greatest decade of economic growth since the 60’s, that message NEVER changed. The answer was always, “we can’t afford more.” Something had to give.

          “Plus I am not to happy with what they are teaching our kids in school now-a-day anyway…” The Tisbury School teaches such controversial subjects as Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Physical Education, Sciences, the Arts, Geography, and so on. You can see the frameworks for each grade level on the MA DESE website. Don’t confuse what you see happening across the country with the reality on our island, which is still very solidly based on traditional educational theory, with modern practices and tech.

          “Many have absolutely no faith in our leaders from the top on down” Then run for office!

          “…and not many people run for office anymore…” Given the vitriol they are met with, it’s little wonder more people don’t want to place their names on the ballot. Town leadership positions are stipended (pennies on the dollar of any other societal role) and require vast amounts of time. Instead of receiving thanks for their service, they are derided as incompetent and corrupt by their neighbors and those they are trying to serve. Doesn’t sound appealing to me.

        • We have the right to vote for our leaders.
          We do not have the right to vote for, or against, their votes.

  4. If there are new items in the cost of $28 million additional funds, and if those new items were not revealed to the state, and if the state based its decision on false information, then the funding should be based on Proposition 2 1/2, should it not? Furthermore citizens with variable rate mortgages are in some cases, including ours, being adjusted upwards and our costs have doubled beginning in October. We received a bill for $6,000 for wastewater for 3 months and the system is not only too small by design but also badly managed with in Tisbury. Our town administrator serves at the pleasure of the select board, and so if he makes moves to support them that goes against citizens’ interests then that is how it is supposed to work, unless I am mistaken. Correct me if I am wrong. This in the middle of Beach Road Weekend when we cannot even stay in our home due to overly loud performances and our select board voting to remove Veteran’s Park from the town citizens for a sum of money paid to the town and so denying its proper use for money. It is just a mess. At least allow prop 2 1/2 so we can play fair on this additional lifelong tax to be imposed on property owners. By the way, and this is another topic, Beach Road is jammed with traffic un-necessarily every time the drawbridge opens and there are more and more vehicles. The gates installed require two people to operate instead of one that can simply use a cell phone to initiate open and closing all gates at once. We should replace them. How many mistakes must we tolerate?

  5. No one seems to note that there are a little over 250 children enrolled in the school. There is one statistic out there that has it there are 8 children to 1 teacher. Or that $85 million divide by 250 is $340,000 per student. Does anyone talk about future contracts to maintain the specific power units YEARLY, that a new maintainance super will have to be computer and software trained or the DPW has to bring up the training of a few people. Do you hire or send one of the men/women to school to be trained and at who’s cost? Then include periodic training.

    To Mr Cutrer’s remark, I would like to point out that as production of goods around the world ramp up, many product prices do come down, not just in petroleum. The a wall Street Journal has listings of such tradings.
    Now, if the town is paying 85 thousand dollars a month for mobil tralors, did we even get to see let alone, comprehend, how much those units cost so we could have purchased them over time then reused them after the school was renovated? For example the town anex went from one tiny hole to a two double wide embarrassment in order to make way for a huge fire station. These mobile units could be an upgrade to town offices or moved to behind the fire station as temporary housing for summer help.
    Here I question what are the town’s priorities? Who is in control and what negotiations are in the works and who in our town government is qualified to negotiate? From the newspaper reports it has the appearance that the town’s people are being trodden over because of tax payers apathy and fear of the neighbors reaction.
    Mr Cutter needs to be educated as to the reality of costs relation to trends. Go back to the state, go find grants, go talk with Microsoft, Apple or others to locate funding. Do some homework further rather than raising your hand to say nay or ay.

    • “No one seems to note that there are a little over 250 children enrolled in the school. There is one statistic out there that has it there are 8 children to 1 teacher.” Parents are sending their children to school in other towns because of the circumstances surrounding this building project. Doing so costs the town more than just keeping them in the school, but the “School Choice” policy is what it is.

      “There is one statistic out there that has it there are 8 children to 1 teacher.” Those figures are flawed. Numerous critical nals are on the “teacher” contract while not actually being teachers. Counselors and Nurses, for example. No one would argue that their services are not necessary, but the numbers you are getting are incorrect because of this.

      “$85 million divide[d] by 250 is $340,000 per student.” Right, except the school will serve 50+ years of students, not just those there right now. Every year as new students enter the cost/student will diminish. Now, the real question is whether you knew that and are arguing in bad faith, or really thought the town was spending the approximate average house price in the USA PER STUDENT to build a classroom space. I hope I know the answer.

      “…did we even get to see let alone, comprehend, how much those units cost…” What an insulting statement. You imply that our Selectboard is either negligent or ignorant, both of which are striking considering your writing does not consider the third possibility: That this was the best possible option for taxpayers given current economic realities.

      “Go back to the state…” The Town of Tisbury rejected the MSBA offer in 2018, wasting a significant amount of state funding on a project that ultimately didn’t happen. They’re unlikely to partner again anytime soon. It’s also worth noting that if construction costs continue to rise at the levels they have for the past four years, a further delay (coupled with the $15-17 million we’ve already put in that would be lost) may outweigh whatever funding we get from the state.

      “Find grants…” We heard this a lot from the town’s last Selectperson, but the reality is that the type of grants available is relatively small pockets of money. Every little bit helps, but when you are talking about $55-81 million, there are not a lot of grants out there that make a significant dent.

      “Go talk with Microsoft, Apple or others to locate funding.” I am always astonished by this line of thinking. These are trillion-dollar corporations. If YOU have an “in” with one of them to open a discussion about cushioning the cost of a new school for one of the wealthiest towns in America, by all means speak up. But the idea that the Selectboard should be able to meet this criterion or NOT proceed with major municipal projects seems to be an artificial barrier to entry designed to make any progress you don’t like impossible.

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