School committee delays West Tisbury School decision

Electric vehicle chargers to be installed at Chilmark School.

The Up-Island Regional School Committee met at West Tisbury School for a hybrid meeting on Monday.

The environmentally friendly school building task force presented to the Up-Island Regional School Committee its recommendations for retrofitting West Tisbury School during a Monday evening hybrid meeting that will cost an estimated $26 million to $37 million, depending on which option is picked.

Task force member Doug Ruskin said the school’s retrofitting will help meet the two goals of West Tisbury: achieving 100 percent renewable energy use by 2040 and zero use of fossil fuels by the same year. Ruskin said RDH Building Science was the firm hired to do a feasibility study. RDH provided the task force a 68-page final report titled “Zero-carbon-ready retrofit study,” which was supported by “over 130 pages of mostly pictures.” 

“What we found was not a surprise. A significant energy use of the building is for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning,” Ruskin said. “Therefore, we have to figure out how to reduce those uses in order to save money and get to zero net energy.”

There were two primary findings Ruskin showed the committee. One was “significant heat loss,” caused by air leakage throughout the building, inadequate insulation, and underperforming glazing and doors. The other was mechanical deficiencies, such as “significantly outdated and/or underperforming heating equipment,” minimal air conditioning, and inadequate ventilation. Additionally, some systems were shut down due to noise, and others were “past their useful life.” 

A pie chart Ruskin showed indicated that the biggest aspect of the school building that contributed to the most heat loss was through the roof (36 percent), with air leakage (34 percent) at a close second. Exterior walls, the slab edge, glazing, and doors collectively made up the remaining 30 percent of the heat loss. 

When committee chair Alex Salop asked whether the roof project’s completion would affect these numbers, Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman said the initial design did not take air leakage into account, so it had to be marked up.

“As a percentage of the whole building, [the roof is] not a big portion of the whole building. So the answer is, it’s not going to change the fuel bill a lot in the next year after it’s done,” Friedman said.

Ruskin continued by listing several remediation options, including air sealing, adding insulation, installing new doors and windows, and getting new equipment like heating and cooling pumps, energy recovery ventilation, new units in all rooms, and updated hot water systems. The cost of these options will be based on final bid documents. RDH’s preliminary estimates, based on current market conditions, is that the project will cost between $26 million and $37 million. This estimate includes RDH retrofitting, next-step costs (owner’s project manager and bid documents), adding solar panels, and temporary classrooms while construction takes place. Ruskin said possible funding sources outside of taxpayers include the state’s Mass Save, Green Communities Division, Massachusetts School Building Authority, and federal sources. 

Two ways to proceed with the project include an “all at once” approach that would complete the project in one to two years, and a phased implementation that would take four to six years. The first option has a lower total cost, earlier performance benefits, and the best technical outcomes, but has a large initial outlay, and would replace some building components before the end of their useful life. The second option distributes costs over time and replaces components at the end of their lives, but has a higher total cost and technical concerns (e.g. subcontractor changes, equipment sizing). Both options would need temporary classrooms, like those at Tisbury School. 

The task force recommended the “all at once” option, to add solar panels “to supply actual need and resilience,” investigate state and federal funding sources, and budget and bond for the project. Ruskin said next steps for the committee would be deciding on which option is favored by the members, deciding on additional building modification needs, making a fall town meeting warrant article for the owner’s project manager and design budget, and drafting a request for proposals.

Mark Rosenbaum, a consultant for the task force, corrected Ruskin, and said more information is needed before the committee can make a decision on which option to pursue. 

“I think the best way to think about this is, You’re going to get a really good building for a smaller percentage of what they’re going to spend in Tisbury,” Rosenbaum said. 

Rosenbaum said there are really three main parts to the project — fixing the building enclosure, changing systems, and then powering it with renewable energy. 

“You can always add the solar panels,” he said. “That’s exactly what happened at Plainfield School. That 135 kilowatt for [photovoltaics] in the field was the last thing that got done.” 

Committee member Skipper Manter said he felt it was obvious that this effort should be combined with “an overall rehab of the entire facility.” 

“I think we need to take a big-picture look at this,” Manter said. He later added that the funding of the project needs more discussion, and should be brought up in a spring town meeting rather than in the fall. 

West Tisbury School Assistant Principal Mary Boyd said the school’s administration has also begun discussing this possibility after receiving the report, and thinks the scope of the work is “a bigger conversation” that still needs to happen.

Committee member Roxanne Ackerman applauded the report, and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” 

After more discussion, the committee decided to hold off on making a decision until another meeting, to let task force chair Kate Warner discuss the topic with West Tisbury School Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt and gain her perspective. The delay would also allow the committee to look into the report further to make their decision. 

In other business, the committee reached a consensus to return to the issue of whether to replace or continue renting West Tisbury School’s generator at a later date. Boyd said the current generator is being rented at $1,200 a month. 

The committee unanimously approved the installation of a level-3 electric vehicle charger at Chilmark School. 

During the meeting, Salop took the time to commend “everyone who participated in the effort to manage our unexpected influx of folks from Venezuela.” He singled out Superintendent Richie Smith for his part in helping the migrants

“Everyone who was involved in that process did a commendable job,” he said. “Not only treating them with the kind of humanity we all expect, but shining such a positive light on the Island.”


  1. Anyone with any knowledge of design looking carefully at the WT school, which was built in three phrases, would rapidly come to the conclusion that it was designed and built without any concern for energy usage. It’s maximum perimeter and roof area would never be replicated now, without even considering the windows, and HVAC systems. Some of the larger problems, like the windows, were addressed already several years ago. Any remediation plan with this level of cost needs a lot more discussion and review before anything even gets to the town meeting stage. After any available grants from the state or federal government 80% of the cost will be paid by WT taxpayers, 10% each by Chilmark and Aquinnah. Combined with a still unknown number, except that it’s huge, to fix the aging high school these projecgts would be an enormous impact on taxpayers especially those on fixed incomes, but also many others.

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