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.