West Tisbury School renovation inches forward, heads to voters

Committee leadership shift voted in.

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The up-Island school committee will be asking $120,000 from voters for a West Tisbury School space needs study.

The Up-Island Regional School Committee unanimously approved on Monday a warrant article asking for $120,000 to conduct a study on space needs at West Tisbury School. This request will be decided on by voters during the spring town meeting. 

The committee discussed during the meeting how to fund retrofitting the West Tisbury School. A feasibility study on how to make the building more energy-efficient was presented by the environmentally friendly school building task force in September, but the committee held off on making a decision. Since then, task force chair Kate Warner has met with school leaders for input. The most recent cost estimate for the project presented to the West Tisbury select board in December was $30 million. Another part of the costs the committee considered during the Monday meeting was whether to request funding approval from voters for a consultancy firm.

According to Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman, the funding options “to move this project forward” include applying for support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), or the up-Island towns finding another funding strategy independent of the MSBA process. “They bring expertise and money, but it’s a competitive process. So it could take a few years, it could take many years, to be accepted by the MSBA process,” Friedman said when asked by committee member Jim Newman.

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) is currently working with the MSBA with the goal of eventually constructing a new or renovated high school. Friedman said some factors MSBA considers when considering what level of subsidy to provide include student population growth versus school size, and the condition of the building. “They’re looking at the schools that need the most help,” Friedman said.

According to West Tisbury School Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, her student population has increased by around 90 over the past 10 years. Christina Opper, an owner’s project manager with CHA Consulting, said while student population is taken into account, the main issue with the MSBA is they have a pool of funding to distribute. Opper said the MSBA usually receives around 80 to 115 statements of interest from schools, but usually only invites fewer than 15 schools, depending on funding availability. 

“As an example of the financial impact of the number of schools that need assistance right now, in the year 2022 [the MSBA] released an announcement that they’re going to temporarily pause funding for their accelerated repair program,” Opper said. “They used to call it the green repair program. It manages smaller-scale project upgrades and renovations.”

Opper said Brockton High School, the largest high school in Massachusetts, is also currently in the MSBA process, so she “was not confident” West Tisbury School would be accepted without the “demonstrated emergency need.”

An issue committee chair Alex Salop pointed out is that most of the work done prior to the MSBA process, if pursued, would not be accepted, because they need to follow the requirements. “If we did a feasibility study, and even if it’s the most comprehensive study ever conducted, if we were to receive MSBA funding, we would have to start again,” he said. 

Warner felt that getting an “out-of-the-box consultant” would be needed to help the project, and “now is the time” to pursue state and federal funding to at least improve the energy efficiency of the building. Additionally, Warner pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a possible funding source, since West Tisbury School is also being considered as an emergency shelter. “We still have to consider the project is hugely important. A town like Aquinnah can’t afford it. I mean, West Tisbury can’t afford it, but it’s even harder for Aquinnah or Chilmark,” she said. “I think we have to find other ways to skin the cat.” 

Later, Warner also said it was important to meet the state’s goal to be carbon-free by 2050. The Island aims to be carbon-free by 2040. Michael Owen, another CHA owner’s project manager, said state procurement laws are something to consider when pursuing project funding. “Anything over $1.5 million, by statute, requires an OPM,” Owen said. 

Committee chair Alex Salop said considering the other projects Friedman has to deal with, it would be better to hire a consulting firm instead of adding to his workload. Later in the meeting, Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent Richie Smith said he wants to avoid having multiple major projects being done simultaneously become the norm on the Island.

However, the committee needed to decide what figure to ask voters for that they could work with until the following annual town meeting. “It strikes me that … the information we do have is how to improve the energy efficiency of the existing building. The data we don’t have is what Donna needs, and the rest of the staff needs, in order for this building to serve the educational purposes for the next 10, 25 years-plus,” Friedman said, pointing out that MVRHS underwent a space needs study in 2016.

Opper said some municipalities do townwide facilities studies to figure out what type of operational or structural deficiencies exist, alongside the space needs study. These could be paired with joint meetings with other town officials to find an optimal way to implement the improvements. 

The committee felt that while action was needed to move along, a sticker price in the millions might be expensive for voters at this time. After further discussion, the committee voted to put forward the warrant article asking voters to approve $120,000 for a space needs study. West Tisbury would pay for 80 percent of the costs, while Aquinnah and Chilmark would each cover 10 percent. A joint meeting will be held with up-Island town officials regarding the project. 

In other news, the committee unanimously approved a warrant article asking $194,600 for electrical services, circulation pumps, and other costs relating to West Tisbury School’s HVAC upgrades. The article will be decided on by voters during the annual spring town meeting. 

The committee also unanimously approved Vineyard Conservation Society’s donation of a water bottle refill station and water fountain to be placed near the West Tisbury School field for both school and community use. Both equipment and installation will be provided by the society. 

The committee unanimously approved Newman as the new chair, and Salop as vice chair.