Tisbury voters threw their overwhelming support behind a $55 million school renovation and addition project at a special town meeting Sunday afternoon, clearing the first of two hurdles needed before the long-planned project can begin on the 92-year-old town school.

Select board chairman Jim Rogers and building committee chairman Harold Chapdelaine hug after the vote. — Ray Ewing

“It’s gratifying to hear the support,” Tisbury School principal John Custer said after the 237-5 vote, which easily cleared a needed two-thirds majority. The measure now heads to the ballot box, with early voting June 17 and election day voting June 22.

Under a tent on the school grounds, a total of 275 Tisbury voters checked in for Sunday’s meeting, town clerk Hillary Conklin said. Some parents brought their children, who whiled away the time on the nearby playground, their voices mingling with the reedy creak of the swings.

There was only one article on the warrant: a bond borrowing question for the school overhaul, which has been on the drawing board for two years.

Voters, town officials and members of the school building committee all made the case for the plan to modernize and expand the Island’s oldest town school.

“First and foremost, this is a complete gut job. We will see the studs,” building committee chairman Harold Chapdelaine said.

Mr. Chapdelaine walked listeners through the schematic design approved by the building committee, in a process he said took more than 45 meetings over the past two years as building committee members hunted for ways to limit the cost to taxpayers.

“I want the community to know that this building committee looked at spaces carefully,” he said. “We looked at the guidelines, we looked at the codes and we looked at the cost.”

Select board chairman James Rogers, school committee chairman Amy Houghton and town finance director Jon Snyder also spoke.

“The board has voted unanimous support for this project on more than one occasion, and that support remains constant,” Mr. Rogers said.

“This is the biggest single capital project the town has ever undertaken — no surprise there,” said Mr. Snyder. Approving the bonds would add 10 per cent to annual property tax bills, he said, but he also said there are ways to reduce the cost, including grants — most of which require an approved project for an application — and bond premiums, a sort of rebate he said is currently running at about 3 to 4 per cent of project totals.

Meeting was held on the grounds of the 1929 school. — Ray Ewing

“If we do bring down the cost of the project, we’ll borrow less,” said Mr. Snyder. He also said there are ways for senior citizens to work off some of their tax burden by doing volunteer work in town hall.

Most voters who spoke supported the article, although Tisbury conservation commission member Lillian Robinson took the microphone to question the price tag and what she called the “conspicuous wastefulness” of the design.

Ms. Robinson said she felt the project and its financing could be better explained to voters, but Siobhan Mullen rose to say the full documentation has been readily available.

“I think there are a lot of people in this room who’ve done their due diligence,” Ms. Mullen said. “We’re prepared to vote today. This is real value for money.”

One by one, voters stood to show their support for the article.

Alex Meleney said he backed the hefty spending despite having no children or grandchildren at the school.

“Wherever they did go to school or do go to school, there are people like me, retirees that are paying their property taxes,” he said, adding: “Educating the children of our community is the most important job of government.”

Peter Goodale urged a yes vote, saying the cost of construction is only increasing while the existing school will continue to need repairs.
“If we don’t approve it now, we’re going to keep sinking money into this building,” he said.

Tisbury homeowner and school parent Anna Cotton sounded a cautionary note about property values.

“Our house is by far our largest asset,” she said. “It petrifies me to imagine living in a town that does not have a functioning school. The implications on my largest asset and the value of it — I’m petrified.”

The most heartfelt remarks of the day came from Mr. Custer, the longtime principal. He reminded voters of the school’s slogan: We Are the Tisbury School.

“Without a doubt the Tisbury School relies upon so many in our community, and this collective involvement and support is essential. Please know that is also sincerely appreciated and recognized,” he said. “Contributing to the success of one’s public school should result in pride, something we all benefit from as residents. Indeed, we all are the Tisbury School.”

Mr. Custer, who is 51, spoke about his own long history at the school, dating to the days when he was a student many years ago.

“Literally more than half my years have been spent at the Tisbury School. I’m incredibly proud of that,” he said.

He continued:

“What I’m most proud of today is the dedication of the Tisbury School staff to our children. We are limited in our efforts by our current school facility. The Tisbury School lacks the number of appropriate spaces for the programs that we need to best serve students. Creativity and flexibility can only take us so far. It is my belief that students deserve better than what we can now offer — if we want to best support their success, academic and social-emotional.”

He concluded:

“I believe there is no more important building in a town than its school. Tisbury needs a better building to support the learning and instructional needs for our children . . . It’s a tremendous and also a wonderful responsibility, and I’m excited to be a part of it. Thank you for being a part of it, and indeed showing that we all are a part of the Tisbury School.”

Retired trucker Trip Barnes brought down the house with his remarks.

“This is going to be very expensive,” Mr. Barnes said. “And you know what? I don’t care.”

After two hours of discussion, moderator Deborah Medders called the question and voting began, with the ayes a sea of standing voters.

School committee member Mike Watt was relieved, but resolute after the vote.

“Now the hard part starts,” he said.

Updated to include a full account of remarks on the town meeting floor.