Updated Sept. 22
Tisbury voters have endorsed a request for $25.6 million in additional funds for the Tisbury School’s renovation and addition. Per prior statements by school officials, the new dose of money will stave off what might have been a collapse of the project, which has suffered from cost overruns attributed to inflation, among other things.
The school project funding required a two-thirds vote, and passed by a vote of 373-112. The voters remaining as the tally was announced erupted in applause.
Nearly 500 of the town’s 3,718 voters attended the town meeting, or about 13 percent.
The vote was taken by Australian ballot, a written vote that hides the identity of the voter. Supporters of the measure said they were upset that the town sought and received an exemption from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to avoid a townwide ballot.
The special town meeting was held at the Performing Arts Center at MVRHS because the Tisbury School gym is in the process of being removed. The move to Oak Bluffs required special legislation.
Finance committee member Nancy Gilfoy urged a yes vote, calling it “much-needed and long overdue.” She also acknowledged the price was a “big ask.”
Tisbury School Principal John Custer said the current building is inadequate. “It’s finally time we appropriately resolve this,” he said.
Select board member John Cahill invoked John Adams in supporting the school funding, who said public education “shall be the care of the public and maintained at public expense.”
Opponents like resident Tony Peak argued there has never been a “stated budget” for the school project.
Wiet Bacheller, a former longtime teacher at the Tisbury School who counted Custer among her past students, noted that back in 2018, Ben Robinson led a group of 14 “prominent” Tisbury residents to write a letter. The letter suggested a renovation and addition project would save the town millions of dollars over a new school. “People believed them,” Bacheller said. At the time, she said, the state had earmarked $14 million toward the proposed $46 million project. Bacheller blamed “Ben and company” for the failure of that project, and the loss of the state funding. For the $25.6 million and the overall project before the town presently, Bacheller said, the same folks are trying for a repeat performance.
“We have the same people singing the same old song,” she said.
Robinson, chair of both the planning board and the water resources committee, as well as an MVC member, said if “we had more time,” he would address the letter referenced by Bacheller. Robinson instead said, “Tonight we’re being asked to appropriate another $26 million that if approved will cement our collective failures to address the intersection of our fiscal reality and the real needs of our education facility.” Robinson went on to recall the 1990s addition to the school that evidenced problems about a decade after it was built, and that lead paint wasn’t fully abated at the time. He also said the addition of drop ceilings back then created and exacerbated problems in the school.
“The school community has had to live with those choices since then,” he said. “It’s no surprise that after that botched project, they thought that a new school was the only option.” He also said poor maintenance has worsened the condition of the school. Robinson alleged the community wanted a renovation and addition in 2018, but school officials pushed for a new school instead. Robinson said then a “crisis” emerged regarding “the already known” lead paint problem. Robinson said, “bizarrely,” the same architecture firm behind the problematic 1990s addition was rehired for the current project.
Voter Marie Laursen, who moved for the Australian ballot, said the select board did an “end run” around taxpayers by seeking the DOR exemption.
Town leaders tried to give voters some hope there would be relief. Town administrator Jay Grande told voters federal grants have been identified, while finance director Jon Snyder suggested that second homeowners could be charged more in property taxes.
Following the vote, in a text message to The Times, school committee chair Amy Houghton wrote, “We are thrilled with the results. Most importantly we had a very strong turnout, with 485 voters, and 77 percent voted in favor. We have a lot of work to do, and are ready to get started. Thank you to the voters, and thank you to the amazing architect and construction team.”
Outside the PAC after the meeting had ended, Mike Owen, project manager at CHA Projects, the town’s owner’s project manager, told The Times, “I think it’s a phenomenal night for the town of Tisbury and the students that are going to learn in that school and and become the future leaders of this community.”
The road to the special town meeting and its $25.6 million request has been long and eventful. The course was set in 2018 when voters rejected a prior bid to erect a wholly new and partially state-funded school by 21 votes. A major difference between what happened in 2018 and what has unfolded in 2022 revolves around the ballot box. In 2018, Tisbury voters were given an opportunity to weigh in both on town meeting floor and later at the ballot box. The school vote back then was successful at town meeting, but died at the polls. The Tisbury select board removed the option for voters to go to the polls in 2022, despite the vote amounting to a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion. The select board and other town officials requested and received permission from the state to bypass a ballot question. Ballot questions are standard for increases in a tax levy. However, the town asked the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to approve an exemption under the theory that the request for $25.6 million was simply an extension of a $55 million approval by voters at town meeting and at the ballot box in 2021.
School officials have said without the additional $25.6 million, the project will implode, and the town will be unable to recoup millions of dollars already committed or spent.
Critics have said the project is too expensive, and riddled with unanswered questions.
In a Sept. 13 email to The Times, 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 “we 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.
School officials said there was no plan B.
Houghton has gone on record more than once saying the town could be on the hook for modular classrooms without the extra funding, and because she described the school as rife with hazardous materials. Houghton said students cannot enter it again. So effectively, she argued, the modular classrooms, which are meant to be temporary while the school is under construction, would become more permanent by default. She has noted those modular classrooms cost $85,000 per month.
Updated to correct a monetary figure.