In two nearly unanimous votes at a special town meeting Tuesday night, Tisbury voters approved spending nearly $2 million in emergency funds to deal with toxic lead and asbestos found inside Tisbury School.
The discovery led to a one-week delay in the start of the school year, and students being split between two schools — kindergarten through grade 4 in a 1993 wing of Tisbury School, and grades 5 through 8 at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
Even a last-minute curveball, that modular classrooms won’t be ordered because they’ll take five to six months to get to the Island, could not derail the votes. Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said $300,000 will be used to encapsulate the lead and remediate the asbestos, enabling the students to be reunited to start 2020 inside Tisbury School. The town got state approval to bypass the public-bidding process in order to get a contractor quickly, D’Andrea told voters, to “reunite students into a healthy Tisbury School.”
D’Andrea introduced that plan at a forum held Thursday at Katharine Cornell Theater.
Voters approved $1.5 million and $450,000 from the town’s stabilization fund, an account set aside for capital projects. To use the money, the town needed a two-thirds majority — the $1.5 million was approved 208-1 and the $450,000 was approved 212-1 to wild applause. Voters were still arriving even as the final votes were taken.
As the special town meeting started, town moderator Deborah Medders introduced key school and town leaders, including Tisbury School Principal John Custer, to rounds of applause.
Selectmen chair Melinda Loberg asked for similar recognition of parents who have been “stressed out” by the sudden change to their children’s schedules.
“I, too, just quickly want to say thank you to parents, students, and staff of Tisbury School for working through this difficult situation,” D’Andrea said. He went on to thank others, including Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling, whose station meeting room has been used as a makeshift cafeteria. He said he’s learned a lot about lead, abatement, and encapsulation. “But, most importantly, we have learned that the school department and the town must improve communication and coordination to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The plan is focused on keeping students safe, minimizing disruptions to their education, keeping the school together as much as possible, and reuniting the students as quickly as possible. He said the school department has consulted with environmental regulators, and will work on sealing off the contaminants.
“The [Department of Labor Standards] has assured me that this is a safe process, and have agreed to visit the worksite to ensure that all safety protocols are being followed,” D’Andrea said. A full-time environmental hygienist is being hired to do testing on a daily basis, to make sure that the building is safe while remediation is completed, he said.
Tuesday’s special town meeting didn’t match some of the contentious sessions that led up to it, where parents let school and town leaders have it for not doing more about lead concerns raised previously, and for not doing more to sell voters on a new school in 2018. Selectmen were widely criticized for “sabotaging” the new school, which lost by just 21 votes.
Parent Anna Cotton, who had been critical at some of those meetings, praised the school committee and selectmen for working together. “I think this is a really amazing opportunity for our town to come together and do something productive,” Cotton said.
Justin Lucas, another parent, asked the night’s only question. He wanted to know why the article included language about the modular classrooms if those were being abandoned.
Town administrator Jay Grande said the money could be used for those classrooms in the future. The article was worded broadly to provide what he called “working capital.”
D’Andrea said the money in the second article would be used to cover expenses associated with splitting the students that included hiring an additional nurse, other personnel, and transportation. “We’re confident that the $450,000 will be enough,” he said.