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Pittsfield Council Queries Superintendent on Fumes Evacuation Incident
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
04:41AM / Wednesday, December 14, 2022
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Superintendent Joseph Curtis answers questions from the City Council on Tuesday about closing the high schools over gym floor refinishing.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The emergency dismissal of the city's two high schools last month because of floor refinishing fumes was because of a miscommunication, said superintendent of schools.
 
On Tuesday, city councilors expressed displeasure with how the school district handled it, quizzing Superintendent Joseph Curtis on the matter.
 
"My phone rang zero times about tax rate, multiple times about the gym floors," Councilor at Large Earl Persip III said.
 
And Councilor at Large Karen Kalinowksy said the excuses "sounds like a blame game and no one took ownership." 
 
Pittsfield and Taconic High were evacuated before noon on Nov. 18 because of varnish fumes. The contractors began their work during the school day — when they were supposed to wait until the buildings were empty.
 
"The city maintains our school buildings," Curtis said. "And so there is, I would dare say a culture, if you will, that the principal feels obliged to let maintenance continue as they see fit."
 
According to Curtis' timeline, he first noticed the odor on Nov. 17, a Thursday, around 10 a.m. on the second floor at Taconic. He was notified by Principal Matthew Bishop that the gym floors were being refinished. He said the odor was not apparent in the main part of the building. 
 
He then contacted Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke to ask why they were being refinished and was told that Athletic Director James Abel had scheduled it and thought it was occurring over thanksgiving break. Curtis told the council Abel had resigned.
 
(Abel will be leaving at the end of this month and said Tuesday night his resignation was a matter of work-life balance after 16 years of working all day and then late into the night. He decided to leave before getting too deep into the winter sports season.)
 
Curtis said he went to PHS and found that the odor was evident in the lobby but not strong. He was later contacted by Principal Maggie Esko and told that some staff members were having an issue with the odor and asked the custodial directors why the refinishing was done during school hours. The contractors at this time indicated that the work was finished.
 
Esko wrote an email to staff around 2:15 p.m. on Thursday acknowledging their concerns while Curtis was in a mandatory virtual meeting until 4 p.m. followed by an audio broadcast with Pittsfield Community Television.
 
He said he then contacted the custodial director.
 
"He confirmed that the work was done and that the odor would still be present the next day but would dissipate overnight," Curtis said.
 
"It is important to know that I did not receive any phone messages related to this incident from any staff member on Thursday, Nov. 17. My assistant, Miss Blake, had a vacation day and I, as I just indicated, had a full schedule that was primarily out of schools in the community."
 
On Friday morning, Nov. 18, Esko again contacted him with concerns related to the odor, specifically in the cafeteria. She said it had intensified as students and staff circulated the building.
 
Curtis said he contacted PHS staff around 8:45 a.m. to clarify that this should not have happened and apologized. He reported receiving four emails from school staff at this time.
 
Curtis made the decision to release PHS students early and contacted Bishop to inquire about the smell at Taconic. After hearing that the odor was still present in the school's cafeteria, he decided to release the other high school as well.
 
The custodial director was instructed to ensure that the buildings were ready for school on the following Monday and Director of Public Health Andy Cambi was asked to join a walkthrough on Sunday to OK the return of students.
 
On Nov. 22, Curtis said he sent a written directive to the custodial director, the city's director of building maintenance, and the athletic director stipulating that the floors are only to be refinished during the summer while school is not in session and would no longer be coordinated by the athletic director.
 
He said this was in alignment with the city charter stating that the Pittsfield Public Schools buildings are the property of and, for maintenance purposes, the responsibility of the municipal government.
 
Curtis also met with district principals and reaffirmed the local School Committee policy and Mass General Law that states noone should be in a school building without the principal's knowledge and consent. 
 
On Nov. 30, a written directive signed by Mayor Linda Tyer and Curtis was sent to all school and district leadership along with the city department heads and Curtis also presented a statement to the School Committee at its Nov. 30 meeting.
 
"The superintendent of schools has not historically been involved in identifying or scheduling maintenance in our school buildings. Since becoming interim superintendent and then superintendent, I have not been involved in these matters, either," Curtis wrote.
 
He reiterated maintenance was the responsibility of the city and noted that there is not and has never been a school department facilities manager. Rather, this responsibility has falled to the city's director of buildings and maintenance and the school district's custodial director. 
 
This case, he wrote, was an exception "based on numerous requests and demands in prior years from our fall sports teams in ensuring the gym floors were acceptable for their sports' practices and matches, particularly volleyball and basketball, the athletic director scheduled this maintenance in conformity with the district's past practice."
 
Over the last decade, the PHS gym floor has been refinished five times while school was in session, Curtis said. Taconic's old gym floor was refinished while school was in session twice since 2014 and twice in the new school.
 
"Moreover, in my role as deputy superintendent, I had no involvement with this process, nor was I informed of any past complaints from school community members," Curtis wrote. "Nor was I made aware of any agreement or assurance that the floor finishing would not take place when school was in session."
 
Persip questioned why this work was able to get done without someone saying "wait a minute" and making a phone call.
 
Some of the biggest concerns he heard were about the miscommunication that led to contractors entering the building and beginning the work.
 
Curtis pointed out that Esko is a new principal and said it was believed that there was some sort of endorsement from somewhere else.
 
"The best answer for that councilor is that there's been a culture of acceptance in school building leadership that if maintenance is occurring, then someone else must have approved that," he explained. 
 
This is why the district felt it was critically important to put it in writing, he said.
 
Persip asked if there are any other blurred lines. 
 
"I would be hesitant to say that all blurred lines have been cleared up," Curtis said. "But now we certainly have this written document and this experience to cite."
 
Kalinowsky, a retired school resource officer, said the floors were done over the summer or Christmas break as standard procedure. The principals would have known, she said.
 
"There's no way that somebody had closed up the gym to get work done without the principal being notified because it would have changed the way that gym classes were run," she said, adding that she hopes that Abel didn't resign because of this situation because he is low on the chain of command. 
 
At the last council meeting on Nov. 29, longtime PHS art teacher Lisa Ostellino attributed the incident to mismanagement and miscommunication and said she had filed a formal complaint when the same thing happened a number of years ago.
 
"This is decades and decades of miscommunication and mismanagement between the city school department and everybody that works underneath that," she said during open microphone.
 
Ostellino she's still getting headaches from fumes in the building and her heart races. She claimed that this has been happening for years with administrative and custodial knowledge.
 
"It happened six years ago too and at that time, we all got sick also," she said. "I put in a formal complaint and was assured it will never happen again."
 
She said she complained to administration over this latest incident and got no response and that it took four days to get the material safety data sheets on the chemicals used in the revarnishing.  
 
"The city needs to do better and this department needs to do better," she said. 
 
Curtis said not all the data sheet pages were immediately available and that he was not able to answer calls during that time but could have answered emails.
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