Updated March 15
School and building officials are working to make West Tisbury School carbon-neutral, while also adding more space, but the project appears years from going forward because of financial hurdles.
The Up-Island Regional School Committee met Monday evening with the West Tisbury capital improvement committee to discuss long-term planning for the school’s facilities. The environmentally friendly school building task force presented recommendations to the school committee last September to retrofit West Tisbury School to meet the town’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy use by 2040, and to eliminate fossil fuel use by the same year.
The school is currently the town’s biggest energy user, and renovating it is expected to cost around $30 million. The school committee voted in January to ask voters to approve using $120,000 for a study on what type of space West Tisbury School needs. According to Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman, the space needs study could act as a “precursor” to a feasibility study for the building, which may cost up to $1.5 million.
West Tisbury treasurer and capital improvement committee member Kathy Logue began the conversation by saying her committee was in favor of developing a long-term plan to be environmentally friendly. However, the financial burden on the town would be “enormous.”
“If you look at the debt service we have on all of the town projects for West Tisbury now — I’m going to talk in very round numbers — it’s roughly a million dollars a year,” she said. “If you add to that what is likely to be our share of the high school project, which is roughly 14 percent for us, give or take a decimal point, it’s going to more than double. That’s before you add anything for the Howes House, which may or may not happen, and certainly before you add anything for this building.”
Logue said there wouldn’t be a “significant drop” in the town’s debt until some years later. “2029, 2030 is when a lot of what we’re paying for now goes away: the town hall, a few other projects like that,” she said, adding that addressing the conditions for some other buildings, like Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, is more “urgent.” West Tisbury School is still paying for work done within the past 15 years, and the building is still usable, according to Logue.
West Tisbury town accountant and capital improvement committee member Bruce Stone said he was “hesitant” to do major reconstruction if there was still life in the building. However, he acknowledged that needs of the school could change depending on certain factors, such as class sizes.
One potential funding source for the school is working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), but school committee member Alex Salop expressed uncertainty on whether the building project could get funding through this route. “When the MSBA provides funding, there’s some rather urgent reason for them to do it,” he said.
Another factor in the school renovation was the needs of students and staff. West Tisbury School Assistant Principal Mary Boyd said the projection is that her school is expected to steadily grow to 400 students or more within the next 10 years. According to the state’s school profile, West Tisbury School had 342 students enrolled for the 2022–23 school year. Boyd said the school is very close to needing a third classroom for its lower-level elementary students.
“We’ve made some creative solutions to things and made things work, but even one or two students in those grade levels would necessitate a third classroom, and we are very pressed for space for that third classroom,” she said. “If you come around on a tour here, you can see we are using every nook, cranny, office space, closet that we can use for students and teachers to do the work that they’re doing.”
School committee member Robert Lionette agreed that the school and Island’s demographics will need to be taken into consideration as the project advances, which he said he would like to see a concrete study on. He also pointed out that the projections may be outdated in a few years, and another set of data would be beneficial.
West Tisbury climate advisory committee member Kate Warner, who was also a part of the task force, later said consultants recommended doing the work “all at once” so there wouldn’t be issues of systems being sized wrong. Warner told The Times it can be challenging to make where two parts of the building meet to be well-insulated and air tight. Just looking at the energy side of the project, Warner said, a third of the budget would likely go toward leasing portable classrooms. Warner also said improvements to the school’s heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system will be needed to respond to the effects of climate change.
Understanding the space needs of the school will give a “better picture” of where the project is headed, Warner said. “But I also think it may be very plausible that we just can’t do the work all at once, even if it’s not quite as good a job, because we really don’t want to take on the debt of all of those classrooms, those portable classrooms,” she said. “I mean, it’s just throwing money away.”
When Lionette asked if the current recommendations could be outdated in the next 10 years, considering technological advancements, Warner said the insulation method and need to improve the building’s airtightness will not change. Additionally, she said that the current budget is most likely to change, considering the price increase of the Chilmark School HVAC project.
Friedman said the space needs study, alongside input from the town, will likely be needed before a long-term plan for West Tisbury School can be solidified. He said the MSBA process could see changes in prioritization depending on how many schools will need to meet the state’s 2050 carbon emission reduction goals, but other funding sources, like grants or federal funding, should be explored.
After further discussion, the two committees agreed to keep in touch regarding this proposed project.
Updated with clarifications from Kate Warner.