Make or break for Tisbury School

Voters to decide Tuesday whether to back $25.6 million more for project. 

On Tuesday voters will decide whether to move forward with the Tisbury School renovation and addition project or to put on the brakes. -Rich Saltzberg

Special town meeting voters will decide if they will support an additional $25.6 million in additional costs to fund the Tisbury School renovation and addition project at a meeting scheduled for 7 pm Tuesday, Sept. 20, at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs.

Voters approved $55 million for the project at a prior town meeting, and again at the ballot box. However, voters will have only one shot to weigh in on the $25.6 million funding request, a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion, because town and school officials sought and got permission from the state to bypass a ballot question. Ballot questions are the norm for increases in a tax levy. However, the town requested and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue approved an exemption finding that Tisbury wasn’t required to seek ballot approval because the monetary requests are considered an extension of the prior $55 million vote, which was already ratified by a ballot vote. 

School officials have said without the additional $25.6 million, the whole project will fall apart, and the town will be unable to recoup millions of dollars already committed or spent. 

Tuesday night, a week away from the special town meeting, a $70 million guaranteed maximum price (GMP) was announced for the construction portion of the project at a joint meeting of the Tisbury School committee and the Tisbury School building committee. That price is the contractual ceiling for the town’s construction manager at risk, W.T. Rich, to remodel the school, according to Harvey Eskenas, a senior project manager for W.T. Rich. However the total estimated cost of the school exceeds $70 million due to additional so-called soft costs. These soft costs, amounting to about $11 million, bring the overall cost of the project to $81.8 million. The soft costs aren’t contemplated in the GMP. At the joint meeting, Eskenas provided an up-to-date breakdown of estimated overall costs for the project and the amounts expended thus far. 

For the portion W.T. Rich is responsible for, pre-construction was estimated at $160,000, and $160,000 has been spent. For the actual construction portion of the project, the aforementioned $70 million is both estimated, “guaranteed,” and backed by a performance and payment bond that, according to Eskenas, will ensure the work is completed if W.T. Rich should default on its obligations. Of that figure, $12.2 million has been spent. 

For administration, which includes legal aspects, printing, advertising, and miscellaneous project costs, $223,095 is budgeted, and $7,496 has been spent. 

The cost of the owner’s project manager, Daedalus Projects, is estimated at $1.6 million, of which $1.2 million has been spent. 

The cost of architectural and design work by Tappé Architects is budgeted at $4.1 million, and a little more than $4 million has been spent so far. 

Miscellaneously categorized costs for the project, which include utility costs, permitting, moving, testing, and inspections are budgeted at $481,750, and so far $322,049 has been spent. 

Furniture, fixtures, and equipment like phones and computers is budgeted at $825,000, with $0 spent so far. 

Eversource work to bring in a new primary cable is estimated at $400,000 with $365,737 spent so far. 

A contingency sum of $3.8 million is budgeted, with $0 spent so far. 

The total project budget to date, including the previously approved $55 million and another $1,232,443 set aside in 2019, is $56,232,443. This leaves a shortfall of $25,610,841. 

Asked by school building committee chair Mike Watts if he anticipated the $70 million figure could somehow climb higher, perhaps through change orders, Eskenas said, “No, we don’t anticipate it’s going to go any higher, Mike, that’s it.”

In an email to The Times on Tuesday, Tisbury finance director Jonathan Snyder wrote that a median residential property in Tisbury, valued at $744,000, is presently taxed at $4,828 with Tisbury’s residential exemption and $6,475 without it (seasonal homeowners, for example). With the $60 million Tisbury has already borrowed, $55 million for the school and $5 million for roadwork, the same house with the residential exemption would have a tax bill of $5,394 or $7,234 without it. If the $26 million ($25.6 million) is approved next week, those same properties would be taxed at $5,644 and $7,569 respectively.

In a memo to the select board and school building committee, Snyder wrote that “[w]e find ourselves in the unhappy position of having to choose between two costly options.” Snyder said it boiled down to either voting in the $26 million or commissioning another redesign of the school, each of which had costs associated with it. 

Last week the project received the endorsement of Tisbury’s finance committee after a drawn-out meeting. The sole dissenting vote was Rachel Orr, a former school building committee member who left that body last year after disagreements about decisions it had made, among other issues she cited. 

The modular classrooms the town acquired through a lease agreement for temporary classroom space during construction might be costly to buy if the vote fails, school committee chair Amy Houghton said at the finance committee meeting. 

Houghton noted the town would remain obligated to honor that lease terms ($85,000 per month), and then it would have to negotiate to buy the modulars. Moreover, the lease includes removal of the modulars, so she suggested the town would be saddled with that cost should it break the lease. 

“If we purchase them, then that’s on us, and the town is going to have to figure out what to do with them, and I’m not sure where they would go,” Houghton said. 

Houghton said some solutions might be found, but “at this point, the project is not about keeping modulars forever and keeping a modular school in the town of Tisbury.”

In a letter to the finance committee read into the record by Nancy Gilfoy, town administrator Jay Grande described the Tisbury School as being in substandard condition: “The condition of the school has been so poor that in the last decade … an emergency repair to the heating system was needed, and the school boiler was replaced, the roof was replaced over the building; half the school population and faculty were removed to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School so that abatement of hazardous conditions could be completed. The library and classrooms in the newer wing of the school had to be made weather tight due to water intrusion. The school systems are past their useful life, including fire suppression, and require replacement. Any failure of one of these critical systems will result again in the need for relocation of students …”

Asked Wednesday morning if town officials or school officials knew ahead of the 2021 landslide approval of $55 million in borrowing for the school that the project would be more expensive than $55 million, Watts said nobody knew then. He said it wasn’t until later, when the design of the school was 60 percent complete, that overages became apparent. Further asked about $8.7 million in costs that appeared to manifest in July but were absent in earlier calculations, including $4 million for a glazed curtain wall, Watts said those costs were always there. Earlier they may have been blank line items ($0 line items), he said, but these were nonetheless folded into other figures, sometimes general figures. As the project progressed past 60 percent design completion, these figures became more distinct. 

In response to a similar question posed by email in August, Grande wrote, “[T]he ‘$0’ items are accounted for in the numbers. To make it clearer, referring to ‘Glazed Curtain Walls.’ Curtain Wall Systems sometimes start off as metal windows, then sometimes change to storefront systems, or end up as curtain walls. So although the original budget notes $0 for curtain walls, and the dollars were carried on a different line item in the original budgeting. Remember the project has gone through a value engineering process which [has] modified materials and methods of construction.” 

At the joint meeting Tuesday, Martha’s Vineyard Schools Superintendent Richie Smith said there was “a dire need for a building for our Tisbury children and staff.” Smith described it as a “huge building project,” and noted another was on deck at the high school.

“It is not often that a school system engages in two major building projects in essentially the same year. We’re doing that. We’re also faced with a building project that is a track and field project at the high school. We have arbitration that we’re going into with our union negotiations.” 

Smith said the magnitude of what is in play can be distracting, and he wanted school employees not to lose sight of the focus of their work, “and the work is our children.”

He suggested that work hasn’t been lost on Tisbury. 

During a recent 550-person convocation at the Performing Arts Center, the first since 2019, Smith said Tisbury School staff showed a solidarity that was “inspiring for the rest of the staff to see” when they came in in hard hats and bright construction attire dancing to “We’re All in This Together.” 


  1. Meanwhile: European Union pledges $100,000,000 to Ukraine for school rebuilding. How many schools do you think the Russians blew up? I hope they can find a good contractor.

    • $100 million sounds like a lot, but, in Massachusetts, it wouldn’t even be enough for 2 schools.
      EU economics are much the same, and probably Ukraine too.
      The Tappe school would cost us at least $132 million, incl. the cost of the loan (82 + 50 = 132).
      Tisbury School Plan B would cost 50% less – and would be a much better school, ready much sooner.
      See my comments from earlier today, 9/17 at 11:36

  2. My problem is why not bring this back to a ballot vote.
    I see but I don’t get ~ “the town requested and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue approved an exemption finding that Tisbury wasn’t required to seek ballot approval because the monetary requests are considered an extension of the prior $55 million vote, which was already ratified by a ballot vote”.

    What is the honest reason the town requested the exemption? The folks will say no again?
    The last vote said no, now that expected $$$$ is totally over the hill and obviously something royally stinks here in my humble opinion.
    I believe many people screwed up bad for a very long time and we still really do not know all the facts what the total costs will really be. Why we need such a trophy school, when rumor has it enrollment is going down there, we cant get a stright honest answer and who is at fault for all this very expensive mess.
    Anybody that has ever picked up a hammer knows that on good sized construction jobs there are `always` $Overruns$!

  3. Vote for it, more and more migrants are coming with children, we need room for them & housing, open your homes and schools, Build it “they will come” & are coming! Now we can do what we always said was right and our actions speak louder than our words!

    • The Island has a long history of welcoming immigrants.
      Gosnold and Mayhew come to mind.
      When did you immigrate to the Island?
      Where were your parents born?

  4. Everyone knows and agrees that Tisbury desperately needs a much better school.
    But there is something fundamentally wrong about the School Committee allowing only one option to be considered: Daedalus/Tappe – a typical multi-corporation whose highest priority is to produce the highest profits for their shareholders and themselves (which explains their many examples of disgraceful cost-padding – they get paid a percentage of the final cost of the project!) – working hand in glove with the State regulators, coaxing them to pile on evermore costly rules, regs and codes (again, higher profits).
    And almost all of the $82 million would go off-island, as will the gigantic cost of the loan, an additional $50 million. Thus a total of at least $132 million would be siphoned out of our small Tisbury community over the next 30 years – a heavy financial burden for our children.
    And what do we/they get for our/their hard-earned money?? A shamefully inferior incompetent school that will totally fail to function during a long-term total grid crash – which we all know will happen sooner or later.
    Tappe has actually designed a school for us that would become completely useless, uninhabitable within just a week or two – whatever amount of back-up batteries or fuel they plan to have onsite, it will be gone within a very short time – and after that, no more light, heating, cooling, ventilation, cooking, refrigeration, electronics or school buses – not even water because no power or fuel to pump groundwater up into water towers. (So, obviously, the school also needs its own wells + PV-powered pumps = total water security – and this will also save megabucks!)

    Sure, the Tappe design will have some PV panels on the roof – but do you know that their roof is so badly designed that it can hold less than 1/3 of the PV panels required to power the school. Has anyone else even bothered to do the calculations?
    This irresponsible attitude of “Leave it to the Experts – just trust the Professionals” is the reason we now face this abominable Tappe design, and for that outrageous cost. Wake up dear Friends – and please consider the future wellbeing of our kids.

    The School Committee claims there is no “Plan B”, and never has been. That is false.
    They have known about a Plan B since the very beginning. But for some reason they feel it’s more important to follow the dictates of the State, even when those demands cause great harm to our community, such as forbidding us from designing and building our own school the way we think is best – and like DEP forcing us to have Title 5 septic systems, even though they have known for many years that those systems are the major cause of the pollution that is destroying our ponds and polluting our drinkingwater.
    Dear Friends, this seems like a good time for us to learn to stand up for our most basic right, the right to do what we decide is the best for our community. Right?

    I started submitting preliminary proposals for “A Better Option” from the very beginning, and it has been continually evolving ever since, with detailed designs and calculations.
    I have been urging them to look at Plan B, again and again, and I specifically requested that my submissions be posted on the Town website, on the School Project Public Comments page. But they chose to not post a single one of them. Is that even legal?

    The School Committee has refused to even look at it. At first, they said they must hire an OPM and architect before even talking about the school, and after they hired Daedalus/Tappe, any and all attempts to show or talk about any other options, were always totally denied.
    And all the time they have claimed there is no other option besides Tappe – “there is no Plan B”. I wonder what’s the real reason for such denial. Fear of the State?
    So now they claim we have only two choices: Tappe and a $132 million debt burden on our children for 30 years – or our children staying in trailers for 4 years or maybe much longer.

    Thus, since the very beginning, there has in fact been a deeply developing Plan B – a plan that any competent local architect, engineer and builder could see would probably function pretty much as stated, and would obviously make a much better school, obviously for half the cost, and could obviously be ready in half the time. – and “Plan B – a Better Option” provides comprehensive solar design for heating, cooling and electricity, offering 100% energy security, with all systems functioning even through the longest black-outs.

    Here are the 4 basic components which together can make a much better school, and reduce both the cost and the time by 50%:

    1. Upgrade all classrooms to highest standards (without gutting the building), including new windows, and also independent ultra-clean quiet HVAC systems for each room, controlled by the teachers, and easily maintained by local experts.
    COST for just the HVAC systems: less than $15,000 per classroom x 30 rooms = $450,000 for all the current class rooms.
    COST of such HVAC for the entire school: less than 1 million.
    Compare with the Tappe HVAC: 3.5 million – which is more than 3x the cost of Plan B.
    AND – the Plan B HVAC would provide comfortable and super-clean air in every room all the time, whereas the Tappe HVAC would often be too hot here and too cold there, and would harbor viruses, bacteria, allergens and toxins in the ducts – and it would be noisy.
    COST of Plan B total makeover of all the rooms in the whole 1929 building, incl the HVAC, and new windows: $60,000 per room x 30 rooms = 1.8 million.
    COST of total makeover of the 1929 building: less than $3 million.
    Start to finish for that building could be less than 6 months – Yes, our kids could be out of those noisy, oppressive plastic trailers within 6 months!
    (For more details, see my YouTube video: “Tisbury School Plan B”.)
    Tappe would cost many more millions for lesser results, consuming far more electricity, wasting far more energy, be less sanitary – and much noisier. And the Tappe’s systems would be far more complex and less reliable, and will require off-island expertise to repair (think about that means).

    2. Build a West Wing: 3 levels, 5000 s.ft. footprint, post-&-beam panelized, shed roof – with much better and larger spaces for Library, Cafeteria/Kitchen, Art and Shop, Nurse/Sickroom, Kindergarten (sunny! Rita will love it!), Special Needs – AND an After-School Drop-in Center, AND a Community Emergency Shelter. Less than a year start to finish. COST: $13 million ?

    3. Expand the gym to standard size, WITHOUT destroying the whole building. I have measured and designed – it works. Plan B also provides much larger and better spaces for Backstage, Music, Seating, Storage, Locker rooms, Restrooms, Foyer, Lobby, and Vestibule. COST: $15 million ?

    4. And for 100% secure energy independence: enough PV electricity, solar/thermal systems and batteries. And all-electric school buses (no more diesel fumes!) Plus so much more. COST: $10 million ?
    So, that’s 3 + 13 + 15 + 10 million = 41 million dollars – exactly 50% less than Tappe.
    And the 30-year debt burden is also reduced by 50%, from $132 million down to $66 million.
    I’d be happy to talk with anyone who would like to know more.

  5. We need to speak up and demand more information here, not just sign a blank cheque- which i’m sure is what the Town is hoping for. Anna Edey’s comments are very interesting; i also find it curious for example that 75% of the budget alloted for the project manager has already been spent on work that hasn’t started yet ?!?!


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