Is the Tisbury School safe?

School officials say yes, but some exterior school paint harbors lead, a report shows.

Students returned to the Tisbury School from holiday break Jan. 6 and were reunited under one roof after four months of separation. The reunion came with assurances the school was safe.

It came after a first half of the year that saw the opening day of school delayed a week as school officials scrambled to come up with a plan. Kindergarteners through fourth graders were confined to the most modern wing of the school, and the upper grades relegated to the high school, while lead and asbestos mitigation was done. 

A visit to the school on Friday revealed that while lead paint was encapsulated inside the school, some of the areas on the school’s exterior may have been ignored.

Lead is a neurotoxic metal, particularly harmful to the development of young children’s brains. The sale of lead paint for interior use in homes has been banned by the federal government since 1978. “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects,” according to the World Health Organization. Lead paint inside Tisbury School was encapsulated using emergency funds voted in at a special town meeting in October. The encapsulation work was only done on interior portions of the school, in classrooms, on steam radiators, and at various other spots. Lead paint has previously been documented on the outside of the school, but despite a flurry of investigations into the environmental health of the building, exterior lead paint hasn’t been part of any recent testing processes, mitigation efforts, or even a topic in public discourse. Lead paint became a school concern in 2019 after back-to-back reports from the Martha’s Vineyard Education Association (MVEA) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) showed the school to be leaky, rife with peeling paint, and a potential respiratory hazard. 

In her report, Sarah Gibson, a lawyer for MVEA, described the condition of the school as “disheartening, to say the least.” She could not be reached for comment.

In addition to finding the air in the school stagnant, part and parcel with a determination the ventilation systems in the school were derelict, the DPH report noted, among other deficiencies, the presence of deteriorated paint inside the building. 

The DPH and MVEA reports seemed to spur school and Tisbury officials to take a deeper look into the building. In August they announced lead and asbestos tests would be conducted. What they found delayed the start of school, and enraged parents. Lead paint was identified in numerous locations within the school.

The news came as many parents were reeling from the loss of a $46.6 million new school in a ballot vote of 567 against, 546 in favor, a difference of 21 votes. The school is now on a different track, with a renovation and addition being worked on by a revamped building committee. 

In classrooms, encapsulation primarily took place on the old paintwork of ceilings and walls, largely hidden above suspended ceilings in those classrooms. These areas had shed lead paint chips, in part because of damage caused by roof leaks. 

Former Tisbury School student Sam Cranston, who is now studying at the University of Vermont, recalled that “huge leaks” used to happen in a particular classroom whenever it rained. To stay dry, he recalled, his teacher regularly resorted to an umbrella while instructing class. 

The encapsulation work was signed off on by an environmental hygienist, according to both Principal John Custer and Superintendent Matt D’Andrea. Most, if not all, of the leaks in the roof have been patched, according to Tisbury facilities manager and acting DPW director Kirk Mettell. The exterior walls of the building are a different story. Paint remains in a state of decay. The school is bare brick, but many windows and door frames are wooden. The paint on at least one doorway, the front entrance to the school, has previously tested positive for lead. While exterior portions of the building weren’t included in summer testing that preceded classroom encapsulation, the front doorway was tested back when a new school project was still in the works and demolition of the school was anticipated. An assessment of what hazardous materials would need disposal as part of that demolition was made in a report in February 2017. That report, which identified lead, asbestos, and PCBs in certain parts of the school, found the frame to the front door of the school had the highest lead reading of any area tested at the time. 

A licensed lead inspector from Western Massachusetts who reviewed the report said the lead reading for that door frame appeared “high.” That inspector, Tim Foley, said exterior paint tends to have a higher lead content than interior paint. Foley was not involved in any testing at the Tisbury School; however, he said, he had great respect for the inspector who was, Mel Blackman. “Probably one of the best in the state,” he said of Blackman.

Blackman told The Times he’s been a lead inspector for 31 years, and teaches lead inspection courses for licensing purposes. He described school officials, including Custer, as “nice, congenial people” whom he had a positive experience working for. That work, he said, was done inside the building on Aug. 20. He said he did not inspect any portion of the exterior of the building, nor was he asked to do so. 

CDW Consultants, the engineering firm that tested the doorframe, did not return voice messages seeking comment.

On Friday, when giving The Times a tour of the lead encapsulation work done inside the school, Custer said he believed the school was safe. 

Asked Monday whether he was concerned about the state of exterior paint at the school, especially around the front door, Custer said the board of health hasn’t “raised that as an issue.” 

But he added exterior paint is “probably something to pay attention to.”

Custer said he was unsure if lead paint could become a threat by somehow migrating from the outside of the school to the inside. However, he said, the doorway was “something to be mindful of.” D’Andrea said an environmental hygienist declared “the school safe for the kids. I’m confident it is.” He did not immediately recall the positive lead finding of the front doorframe found in the hazardous materials report. 

Lead paint outside a building can be tracked into a building, according to the EPA

There is evidence of that happening elsewhere in Tisbury. Despite partial remediation efforts, the U.S. Coast Guard failed to eliminate lead hazards in houses on the grounds of West Chop Lighthouse. As a result, a 4-year-old boy and an 11-month-old girl who lived in one of those houses were found to have elevated levels of the metal in their blood. The Coast Guard deduced “cross-contamination” from portions of the property that weren’t remediated, such as exterior portions, was the likely reason lead found its way into living spaces in the houses that had undergone lead remediation. The Coast Guard commissioned tests and inspections that showed the soil of the lighthouse property harbored high amounts of lead, but that information and other data contained in a document chain that stretched back years proved confusing and contradictory to officials who evaluated the safety of the homes on the property, Capt. Kurt Virkaitis, director of external affairs for the First District Northeast, previously told The Times. 

Soils outside old buildings can harbor lead paint. As The Times previously reported, children can ingest soil by accident, or intentionally though pica behavior, and in doing so ingest lead if it’s present in that soil. 

When asked if he supported testing the soils around the school for lead, Custer said, “I don’t know enough.”

When asked if the school system intends to test the soil around the school for lead, D’Andrea said, “We don’t plan on it.”

Tisbury School Committee member Michael Watts said he was unable to answer questions about exterior lead paint on the school because he wasn’t informed on the subject. He said the school committee expects Tappé, the architectural firm designing the renovation and addition for the school, to deliver an existing-conditions study “in the next week or so.”

Watts referred to the age of the school, and said the presence of lead was typical for that era. He said the mitigation work done was essentially a bandage, as opposed to a cure-all. “We did encapsulation,” he said. “We did not solve the lead problem.”

Asked if he believed the building was safe for children, Watts pointed out the building inspector and the health agent cleared the school. 

“You just have to assume that when you’re digging into a building from 1929, there’s going to be lead,” Edgartown building inspector Reade Milne, a member of the Tisbury School Building Committee, said. 

Milne said she was more concerned with the air quality in the building than with lead. She described the vents in the school as “covered up for years and years.”

D’Andrea said ventilation work remains unfinished in the school, but in general, airflow has been “greatly, greatly improved.” 

Former Tisbury School student Dave Krauthamer, now studying at the Stevens Institute of Technology, recalled some classrooms seemed dusty, and in sunbeams sometimes “you could sort of see dust particles in the air,” he said. 

Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said decisions about what remediation work would be done at the school and where it would be done were made by school officials and owner’s project manager (OPM) Daedalus Projects. 

Custer, however, said those decisions were made by the OPM alone.

Daedalus Projects project manager Joe Sullivan simply said interior lead was identified by a specialist, and then abated by a specialty firm. He suggested exterior paint peeling on the outside of the building, particularly on windows, might be latex. He offered no answer as to why it wasn’t tested along with interior portions of the building. He said he would review the hazardous materials report that indicated lead was present on the exterior of the building. 

Valley said she made it clear to school officials “you can’t have peeling and chipping paint,” lead or otherwise. Valley said she would take a deeper look at the windows and doors of the school, and will likely confer with building inspector Ross Seavey.
D’Andrea said he is aware the windows are in bad shape.

The front door of the school, where lead was found, isn’t one of the main ingresses to the school, according to Custer. Custer said students use doors at either end of the building, primarily. However, D’Andrea said the front door is used by students who are late to school. It leads to the principal’s office, where they are required to check in if tardy. Several students either passed through the door or sat on the steps in front of the door on Friday when The Times visited; a family with a child in a stroller was seen on the steps leading to the front door that day.

Asked Tuesday if she believed the school was safe, school committee chair Amy Houghton 

simply said, “Yes.”


  1. Mr. Saltzberg,
    Thank you for your thorough article and for bringing this serious issue to the attention of our community. It makes my blood boil that town officials and administrators are so very cavalier regarding our children’s health. The knowledge of the toxic effects of lead, mold, radon and asbestos is not the result of recent groundbreaking research. It has been well known for decades yet here we are in 2020 with school administrators and school committee members sweeping these issues under the proverbial rug. Massachusetts is #1 in public education in the U.S. This is not back woods Alabama. WAKE UP TISBURY!

  2. It looks to me like the board of selectmen, John Custer, and the D’Andrea have borrowed the Flint Michigan playbook on how to deal with lead, and the tree of death, just feign ignorance, deny responsibility, and cover it up.
    Now that’s something for yew to chew over…
    This isn’t ignorance by town leadership , it’s pure unadulterated stupidity!

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