As 2023 began, the Tisbury School was a shell of century-old bricks and mortar, stripped of its fixtures and ankle-deep in rubble. This month, workers installed the final steel beam for a two-story gym and cafeteria addition, while new classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and light-filled windows are already taking shape on all three floors of the original building.

“Our game plan, if we’re on schedule, is showing that the kids will move in next September,” senior project supervisor Steve Brenner of W.T. Rich Company said last week, as he guided a small group of town officials and reporters through the busy construction site.

Interior work is projected to be completed by mid-August of 2024 so that school staffers can get ready for students to return, Mr. Brenner said.

“We’re over all the major hurdles. The drywall is going up, paint and taping, the cabinetry probably will be in by late fall,” he said.

Windows are expected to arrive in November, along with rooftop heating and cooling units, he said.

Kids lined up outside the school Friday to celebrate the topping off ceremony. — Mark Alan Lovewell

About 60 to 65 skilled tradespeople, including welders, carpenters and masons, are currently at work on the school, Mr. Brenner told the group.

“We should get to about 100 within the next month or so,” he said, estimating that more than 80 per cent of the workers are commuting daily from the mainland.

“Right now we’re concentrating on the masonry so it’s tight for the winter,” Mr. Brenner said.

At a joint meeting of the school committee and Tisbury select board following Tuesday’s tour, board chair Roy Cutrer — a former teaching assistant at the school — praised the project, which remains on schedule and under budget.

“It’s not the same school,” Mr. Cutrer said. “I believe the entire town will be impressed and be extremely happy with this project. It was the right thing to do.”

Built in 1929 and last updated in the mid-1990s, the school skirted demolition in 2018 when Tisbury town meeting voters narrowly defeated a plan to replace it with an all-new building. The discovery of peeling lead paint the following summer touched off a facilities crisis, with fifth through eighth-grade students and their teachers relocated to the regional high school for half the school year while the hazardous paint was removed from classrooms.

A new proposal to renovate and expand the existing Tisbury School won overwhelming town meeting support in June, 2021 for $55 million in borrowing, to be repaid through property taxes over 30 years. After $55 million proved inadequate to meet rapidly rising construction costs, a second town meeting vote one year ago authorized a further $26 million in 30-year bonds.

Steel girders for gym and cafeteria addition are now in place. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“This building was very challenging because of the age and the history, with the town wanting to keep it,” said Mr. Brenner, whose company is required to keep project costs within the town’s budget or absorb the difference.

Staying under budget has been possible so far because the spending plan includes allowances for unforeseen expenses, such as the extra work and materials needed to fasten the old roof to the new structural steel, Mr. Brenner said.

“Once all the [demolition] was done, we found out that all the existing joists were sitting on we had to go in and get this all redesigned and do all this work to bring it up to code,” he said.

It was perfectly safe when the building was all masonry, but the change to metal studs required special clips to keep the roof in place, Mr. Brenner added. Structural engineers and town inspectors have given their blessing to the update, he said.

“Everyone’s inspected all this work, so now this building will last another hundred years,” Mr. Brenner said.

Stormwater from the roof and elsewhere will enter the school’s new underground retention tanks before percolating into the sandy soil beneath, he said.

“Most of the surface water, from rainwater and everything else, will be retained on site [and] go back down into the earth,” Mr. Brenner said.

Original school exterior has been saved. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Each of the three tanks holds 30,000 gallons, he said.

“When you get the hundred-year rainstorm ... then you might get some overflow, but it will take a lot to overflow,” Mr. Brenner said.

To celebrate the latest milestone — placing the final beam of structural steel — more than 250 Tisbury students and their teachers lined up by grade in the parking lot on Friday morning. A small fir tree stood on the topmost beam, flanked by the American flag and a Tisbury School banner signed by all the students including June’s departing eighth-graders.

The fir tree, part of a centuries-old tradition in the construction trades, is a symbol of safety for the workers, school committee chair Amy Houghton told the students.

The ceremony of raising the tree and flag with the last steel beam is known as topping off, Ms. Houghton said.

This particular fir tree was potted rather than cut, so that it can be planted on the school grounds one day, said Michael Owen of CHA, the owner’s project manager representing Tisbury in overseeing construction.

The banner signed by Tisbury students will be become a kind of time capsule, installed inside the building’s ceiling, Mr. Brenner said.

It was unusual, but welcome, to have an audience of children for a topping-off ceremony, Mr. Owen told the Gazette as the students filed back into their temporary modular school.

Normally, he said, it’s a matter of local officials making dull speeches.

“This was really special,” Mr. Owen said.