Tisbury School parents unleash frustration

With parts of school closed due to lead and asbestos, parents call on selectmen to ‘resign.’

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Tisbury School parents packed a joint meeting between selectmen and the school committee Tuesday. - George Brennan

Given their first opportunity to meet face-to-face with town leaders, Tisbury School parents — raw with the emotion of their children being potentially exposed to toxic lead and the start of school being delayed — shouted at selectmen to resign, saying they “sabotaged” a new $46.6 million school project a year and a half ago.

The meeting room at the Emergency Services Facility was packed to overflowing Tuesday at a joint meeting between the board of selectmen and school committee. Some parents sat on the floor, while others stood around the perimeter with arms folded. The emotions were so high that Tisbury School Principal John Custer teared up as he talked about his responsibility in the 1929 building’s failed maintenance. Earlier he apologized to the parents and staff in attendance: “This is incredibly upsetting. I’m not going to try and spin it otherwise.”

Matt D’Andrea, superintendent of schools, also addressed the parents. “I cannot express to you enough how challenging this situation has been over the past week,” he said, noting that organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, and other Island schools have offered help. He said state agencies and town departments have all evaluated the building in the past. “Never have they told us that we cannot be in that building,” he said. “It was last Tuesday that we learned we had an issue. To suggest that I knew, John Custer knew, [assistant superintendent] Richie Smith knew is misinformation, and it’s insulting. We learned this last week.”

All of this comes just six days after the Tisbury School Committee voted to delay the start of school until Sept. 9, with 160 K-4 students staying put in the 1993 portion of the school building (an earlier idea to use Camp Jabberwocky to house K-4 students was abandoned Monday), and 140 students in grades 5 through 8 headed to the high school, to an area known as the “200 wing” that will be self-contained.

“The students will be isolated. They will be constantly supervised. They will have a separate entrance, separate hours, and will eat lunch in a separate place — the culinary dining room,” D’Andrea said. “They will not travel on the bus with the high school; we’ll have a separate route for the middle school students. There will be a nurse that we will hire full-time over there just for middle school, a cafeteria worker, a custodian, and a secretary.”

Specific questions about transportation were put on hold because D’Andrea said a meeting on Wednesday was being held to work out details about bus schedules.

Students in K-4 will eat lunch prepped in the Tisbury School’s commercial kitchen at the Emergency Services Facility, though some parents expressed concerns with what would happen once the weather turns cold.

The school administration is in the process of scheduling an orientation on Sept. 6 at 5 pm at the high school. A separate orientation for K-4 students will be held that same day at Tisbury School at 3:30 pm.

“I understand this has been a stressful situation. It’s been tremendously stressful on us, and I know it’s been tremendously stressful on staff and parents. I thank you for your patience,” D’Andrea said. “Right now this is the best of a bad situation … The Tisbury School is not a building. The Tisbury School is people. It’s staff, administration, and students. It’s a terrific school. It’s one of the best schools in the state, and it’s still going to exist.”

While parents appeared understanding of the administration and loudly told Custer he wasn’t the problem as he shed tears, the same could not be said for the selectmen, as parents unloaded their emotions on them.

“What’s shocking to the rest of us in this room is that the town selectmen sat there and have yet to apologize, and that’s appalling,” parent Siobhan Mullin said. “The reason we are here is a complete failure of the leadership of our town. When school does not open in a town, the town has failed. At the very least, at the start of this meeting, there should have been an apology from all of our selectmen and leaders in our town … The result of your incompetence is that we live in a town where a school is unable to open its doors.”

She called it unforgivable that the town allowed the building to continue to decay without taking any action. “Our students have seen chipping paint. Our teachers have picked it up. And what have you done? As far as I can see, it was left to teachers and staff to consider our children’s safety and their own by contacting the teachers’ union,” Mullin said, noting a report done by the state Department of Public Health on air quality that recommended a more detailed evaluation of lead and asbestos in the building. “You failed to act on that report the whole summer long,” she said. Lives of parents and students have been left in “utter chaos” as a result. “You should consider resigning. Our town needs a complete overhaul of leaders we can trust.”

Selectmen chairman Melinda Loberg made no apologies. She did attempt to respond by pointing out that it’s the school committee and administration’s role to maintain the building, and the selectmen’s role is to consider budget requests. “This has been a difficult negotiation between the town — we do feel a sense of responsibility — there’s a lot of people in this town with children who go to that school, the education program is our prime budget item … We care about it. But we can’t impose things on the school that the school has said no to us, that we don’t want to do that yet. I just want to say we are trying to assist in this problem and participate in a solution, and that’s why we’re here. But in terms of owning it, owning the fact the building has deteriorated and money has not been asked for to repair it — I know we had a project that would have addressed everything, but the town did not vote to support it.”

That comment was met with a wild outburst by parents yelling that Loberg and selectmen had “sabotaged” it, with school board chair Amy Houghton eventually restoring order with her gavel. In 2018, Loberg abstained from a vote to support the project prior to the town vote. Then-selectman Tristan Israel signed a Letter to the Editor against the project, saying the new school was too much money and a renovation project was not fully vetted.

At Tuesday’s meeting, parent Emily Solarazza tried to press Loberg to promise her support of a future project, to which Loberg responded that it would be “irresponsible to write a blank check.”

Selectman Jeff Kristal assured the parents he would support the future project, as he had the one that went before town meeting when he was on the finance committee. He did concede he should have tried harder to convince voters to support that project. “It’s going to cost us a ton more money. We threw away $13 million.” That was a reference to state reimbursement that was authorized through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, funds that have since been revoked by the state agency.

Selectman Jim Rogers was listening in by phone, but never spoke during the session.

Earlier in the evening, Tisbury selectmen voted 2-0 — with Rogers unable to vote because he was participating remotely — to hold a special town meeting Sept. 24. The board is hoping to keep the warrant to one agenda item, a $1.5 million article to lease and/or purchase portable classrooms to house Tisbury School students. The location where those portable classrooms will be housed remains up in the air. (The Oak Bluffs town hall trailers were brought up, but officials said those are office trailers, and aren’t big enough to serve as classrooms.)

Parent Anna Cotton wondered if it made sense to do remediation of lead and asbestos, since modular classrooms are being brought in and a school building project is under consideration by a building committee, which could hire an owner’s project manager as early as next week.

“It feels like you’re throwing money away to do remediation on the school when you have to do a renovation anyway,” Cotton said.

Two reports were released Tuesday; an asbestos evaluation done by FLI Environmental determined that there is asbestos in “older joint compound located in the older portion of the school.” According to the report, there are areas of spot damage. “These areas should be removed or repaired (made intact). It is also recommended that some type of protection be put in place in order to reduce damage to these areas in the future, i.e. corner guards,” the report states. “All abatement activities should be completed by appropriately licensed personnel working for a contractor licensed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for asbestos abatement.”

The lead report, done by Mel Blackman, has been the main focus of concern. “Some of the interior surfaces tested contains high levels of lead paint,” Blackman concluded. He recommended that a lead compliance plan be established with OSHA before renovation of the building, and wrote that the waste stream from a construction project could be deemed hazardous waste — an indication of just how much lead there is in the older parts of the building.

One of the classrooms showed levels of lead as much as 19 times greater than the acceptable level for lead exposure of 1.0 micrograms per centimeter, based on the Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Parent Angela Francis, whose child was in the classroom with that elevated level, asked the town leaders if they would pay for children to be tested for lead poisoning.

Houghton said she believed lead testing is covered by health insurance, but told any parent who doesn’t have coverage that the town would pay for the testing. “I think if you’re concerned about your child, you should get your child lead-tested,” she said.

When an unidentified parent said some primary-care physicians push back on allowing lead testing, a healthcare employee said physicians on the Island are aware of the school situation, and wouldn’t question a parent’s decision to have a child tested. Houghton offered to craft a letter for parents meeting resistance from a doctor.

“We want your children to be safe,” Houghton said. 

23 COMMENTS

  1. It appears that the meeting was complete with the blame game, and school staff pinned against selectmen. We know that the school needed to be fixed, and that lead was present in the building. However, when D’Andrea stated that “It was last Tuesday that we learned we had an issue.”… you mean that the school would have to delay opening, and shift students around? D’Andrea needs to resign as Superintendent. He has failed our community and our children.

    • Fish and fowl – you have posted comments on other articles that suggest intimate knowledge of the plans at the high school. Perhaps you are an employee there. Perhaps you are someone I know. But because you hide in anonymity of a username I do not know. But your other post suggested separating the Tisbury kids out to the other elementary schools within their age groups so as to not displace the teachers at the high school. So your suggestion is to separate these kids – and they are just kids – from the peers they’ve gone to school with for years rather than have some adults deal with the inconvenience of moving around a school? As a teacher – I get it. That sucks. Bad. It really does. But I’m an adult and I’d suck it up because if there is one thing I’ve learn as a teacher is that kids need some source of security and all these poor kids have right now is the security of their staff and their friends. I have a kid at the high school. I know it’s going to be tight. And inconvenient. And difficult. And I hope with all my heart that my girl is going to step into that place ready to help these kids. Instead of hiding behind a pseudonym and insulting the administration, how about at least be public with your criticism and offer a solution that doesn’t just pass the problem off to the next school or schools and cause further stress to the kids and families suffering from this problem? Are you aware that all the towns pay taxes that go to the high school? It is the only school where all the towns have a vested interest and that a part of the building can be – moderately easily – separated from the others there and both schools can run in relative autonomy. I support our administration and the Tisbury School staff. They are doing the best they can in a terrible situation. We are many districts within one district. Let’s act like it.

      • Gail, I am a resident of Tisbury and parent of students who attended both Tisbury and MVRHS. I have attended town meetings and open houses and parent teacher conferences at both school. Anyone can see from the MVRHS website a map of the building. I get it, the job, and the difficulty in being an educator. This is not about the support that our community will shower upon the Tisbury students, nor the support that attending high school students and staff will shower upon all visiting students and staff. This is about a town issue, a failing building, knowledgeable actors ( D’Andrea, School Com., and Selectmen), who failed to deal with this issue in a timely, professional, and transparent way. Read the other article in the MVtimes about Lead in the Lighthouse, and see if you would want your child around such toxicity. The point is to get get D’Andrea and Loberg to show some remorse (as Custer did at the meeting this week), admit that they wronged the community, accept that they were negligent and step down. This issue will plague this school year and D’Andrea, as a swift resolution and a return to normalcy will be hard to reach.

  2. I find it quite amazing that this much lead can be in a school that has been so thoroughly discussed over the last few years.
    For $24 you can get a lead testing kit that will test 8 spots for lead in paint. https://www.amazon.com/3M-717834209102DUPE-LeadCheck-Swabs-8-Pack/dp/B008BK15PU/ref=asc_df_B008BK15PU/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=309795394990&hvpos=1o1&hvnetw=g&hvrand=732611649968384833&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9002089&hvtargid=pla-432573290605&psc=1
    The building is a hundred years old– no one thought there was lead paint in it ?
    But let me address the real issue here– the vote– If you didn’t vote , it is your fault.
    If you voted against the new school, please move to some place that doesn’t value education or the environment —
    And Tristan should be run out of town on a rail. He knew this fan was going to get hit, and resigned at the right time.

    • Dondondon. It is silly to label the no vote as being against education and environment. Those votes were against the high cost of the building. They wanted better review and better alternatives. They should also not hold people harmless for not providing sufficient funds in their balance sheets and earnings statements. Do you really understand the tax implications when 40 million dollars is amortized over a small population that can’t afford it.? This is and was huge mismanagement in not accruing fun’s for maintenance and capital expenditures.

      • anrdew–let me give you the definition of the word ‘environment”—–” the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded”

        as defined by Merriam Webster

        https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/environment
        really . Andrew, do you think that the town of Ttisbury can”t afford to educate their children ? Do you think we can afford spending 25 billion plus on an ineffective and useless wall on the southern border– ? do you think we can “afford” the $100 million plus golf outings for trump ?
        By the way, the Tisbury taxpayers were only on the hook for about $30 million–
        my child is 38 years old and lives in Maine– I am happy to pay for education, not happy to pay for internment camps separating families and putting kids in cages.
        Also not happy to pay for multi billion dollar war machines..
        having said all that, Andrew, I agree with you about the incompetence on the local level about this fiasco..

  3. There have been many university studies that link children exposed to lead with difficulty in attention, who suffer from anxiety, depression, nutritional and diet issues, as well as lowered academic performance, delayed social and emotional growth, and weight loss. As a community member, I really hope that this is not the start of a Class Action Lawsuit from parents of children exposed to lead. Am I reading this article correctly that D’Andrea knew about the issue of lead for several years? I would say that he is accountable for running the school district. He needs to come clean or resign.

    • This comment raising the possibility of a lawsuit is irresponsible. Shame on you for posting it. Talk about throwing gasoline on a fire…
      Try something constructive next time.

      • VH Resident-You feel raising the possibility of a law suit is irresponsible and shameful? I’m guessing you don’t have children or grandchildren who attend the school. I would qualify allowing children to cross the threshold of a building containing toxic levels of lead and likely radon as shameful & negligent. School administrators have a duty to keep our children safe. They failed. Anyone with normal eyesight could see the chipped and peeling paint in the 1929 building. You can bet on a class action and the parents have every right to pursue it. How Tristan Israel shows his face in public in this community is beyond me.

        • I’m confident there will be a class action lawsuit. The town has already admitted fault by offering to pay for lead testing off all students/teachers. Where was the Tisbury Board of Health? When was the last time they inspected the school? It took the teachers union to bring this all to fruition.

      • vh resident– in case you don’t know it, law suits are the primary way things get changed in America— if your kid attended that school and had her brain damaged because of the negligence of the selectmen and the school board, you and your child would be first in line to sign up for the payout..

  4. My elementary school in 1960 had morning classes, then we went home for lunch and then came back for afternoon session. Everyone was within walking distance. In inclement weather and winter, everyone brought their lunch to school. Milk was provided. Students volunteered to bring a few extra lunches in case someone forgot. If a student could not go home he/she could eat lunch with the teacher at school or arrange to eat at a friend’s house. Years later, in 1971 my high school had “split sessions” for the high school -10,11 & 12 students as the new school was being finished.(With over 5000 students it was overcrowded !) We brought lunch and ate it at our desks. It worked remarkably well. I had a part time job in the morning. Yes it was a long day. These solutions worked in the last century. Maybe they can be modified for this one. Sports, music etc locations could be shared or space located elsewhere. As a washashore, I can’t understand why there is not one junior high or middle school for the island. Even if this new Tisbury school was built it would not be ready in time.Students would still have to be moved around. The town missed an opportunity to buy the Luce property which is walking distance from the school. It is time the adults stop the tattle tailing, come in from the playground and start working on viable solutions. I just gave you a few.

  5. Ok. So where were these parents when the vote was taken to fix this? Now that it’s real, you are stepping up?

  6. so here is an idea– the next time a vote comes up for something as important as this, talk to your neighbors– and most importantly the ones who are for or against something that is obviously not right.
    I know, it’s not too easy to tell someone that they may want to reconsider their opinion.
    But some things are important– if 11 people had been persuaded to vote “for” rather than “against” , we would not be in this cluster fence.

  7. The new school vote was ridiculously close. Maybe the Selectmen would like to take this opportunity to rewrite the process. Maybe any important vote ( let’s say millions of State aid involved) that comes within less than 100 should automatically got for a re vote. This is an extremely sad outcome that could have been avoided.

  8. The paragraph that starts with “The students will be isolated.” is pretty weird– sounds like conditions in a maximum security prison, or a trump regime immigration facility.

  9. We should all be tested for lead poisoning, especially if you are over 50. Id like to see the results. Back in the day we had lead in everything including gas.

  10. Whatever they to do rebuild the school, can we forget about preserving the edifice and including it in the new design? What a laughable waste of money, and over the most trivial sense of nostalgia.

  11. I don’t even know how the selectman can show their faces in public right now. Shame shame shame. And Melinda just playing on her iPad during the whole meeting while parents expressed their concerns was very disrespectful. I know none of the selectman have children in school right now, so they don’t care… Furthermore, Jeff Kristal has repeatedly said he doesn’t like kids during televised selectman’s meetings (unless their his own children). And jimmy is always too busy to show up, and when he does, he has nothing to contribute, only more questions and never any answers or solutions. I’m so sickened by this lack of leadership and pray for nothing more than total recall of all of them.

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