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Pittsfield high schools' gym floors sparked headaches, but it didn't cause school official's resignation

PHS practice

A "miscommunication," according to school officials, allowed contractors to resurface Pittsfield's two high school gyms floors while classes were in session last month.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the circumstances around the resignation of Athletic Director Jim Abel.

PITTSFIELD — What should have been a routine maintenance project has become a political drama.

A "miscommunication" allowed contractors to resurface the two high school gyms floors while classes were in session last month, Joseph Curtis, the Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent told the City Council Tuesday night in an update on his investigation into the matter.

Taconic and Pittsfield high schools dismissed early on Nov. 18 after students and staff complained of feeling sick after inhaling fumes from the resurfacing of the gym floors. 

Curtis told the City Council during a Tuesday night update that high school Athletic Director Jim Abel had tendered his resignation earlier this week, leading some council members to question whether the departure was the result of the maintenance issue. Curtis couldn't parse the reason publicly.

"It's a personnel matter and I wouldn't feel comfortable talking about it," Curtis said in response to council questions. "I can tell you I wasn't looking for a fall person."

In a call with The Eagle on Thursday, Abel clarified that his decision to step back from his role with the Pittsfield Public Schools had come after months of consideration and was unrelated to the floor resurfacing.

"It's been something that I've been thinking about for the better part of the last few months in the last year," Abel said. "I can imagine that the timing of it creates some perceptions, but it was not directly linked to the flooring situation."

Abel said that he realized that Curtis was in a "tough spot" in updating the council while having to be limited in what he was saying publicly about a personnel matter. 

In the weeks since, staff members have said in interviews with WAMC and before the City Council meetings that the kerfuffle over the resurfacing project is part of a trend of mishandling the safety protocols around this kind of work.

Lisa Ostellino, a 26-year veteran of the Pittsfield Public Schools, told the council late last month that two weeks after the resurfacing project ended she still had difficulty walking into Pittsfield High School without getting a headache from the fumes.

“This is decades and decades of miscommunication and mismanagement between the city, the school department and everybody that works underneath that,” Ostellino said. “There is no accountability for the things that are important for the safety and health of our students and staff.”

Superintendent Curtis presented an update to the Pittsfield Public School Committee on Nov. 30 in an attempt to assuage community concerns over the resurfacing project — which have bounced between worry over the exposure to the chemicals used in refinishing the floors to concerns over how schools leaders could be unaware of the timeline around the project.

Curtis came before the City Council on Tuesday in response to a petition submitted by councilors Earl Persip III and Karen Kalinowsky asking for additional answers around the maintenance.

Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis. (copy)

Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Curtis.

Curtis gave an almost hour-by-hour accounting of his schedule on Nov. 17 and 18. The superintendent said that he’d noticed the fumes on two separate tours with the principals of Taconic and Pittsfield high schools on Nov. 17 but said that the odors weren’t “strong to my senses.”

Curtis said he contacted Kristen Behnke, the assistant superintendent of Business and Finance, to ask why the floors were being refinished while school was in session and was told that Abel had scheduled the work and she thought it was happening during the approaching Thanksgiving Break.

Curtis said that once he heard from the principal of Pittsfield High School, Maggie Harrington-Esko, that some staff were concerned about the odor he reached out to the acting custodial director and was told that the project was over. The superintendent said he was told that the work was done and while the smell would still be present on Friday, it would “dissipate overnight.”

When Esko alerted Curtis to continuing concerns over the fumes at Pittsfield High School ahead of lunch on Nov. 18, Curtis said he made the decision to release staff and students at both high schools.

“I immediately wrote to the PHS staff at 8:43 a.m. acknowledging that this should not have happened, including my apologies and that I would investigate as to why this happened,” Curtis told the council.

Curtis said he had the city’s Health Department Director Andy Cambi join the high school principals on a walkthrough of the buildings on Sunday evening and that Cambi gave the all clear for students to return to school the next day.

students walk toward red ivy covered school (copy) (copy)

Taconic and Pittsfield high schools were dismissed early from school in mid-November students and staff complained about fumes coming from the gym floors, which were being refinished. 

The superintendent launched an investigation into the project and shared his findings in his weekly email update to staff and families on Dec. 2.

The investigation says that responsibility for reaching out to the city’s longtime contractor for this work, Albany-based JJ Curran, had fallen to Abel “based on past practice and dynamics.”

The superintendent has consistently emphasized that this kind of maintenance work does not normally require his sign off as the school buildings fall under the purview of the city’s maintenance department.

He repeatedly stated that principals should know that “no person or persons should be in a school building without the principal’s knowledge and consent to visit for purposes of maintenance or repairs or for any other reason.”

Even so, Curtis admitted that when it comes to city-ordered maintenance at the schools there have been “blurred lines” around communication. He added that when he was principal of the Morningside Community Schools he would sometimes come across a plumber in the bathroom “and not know why they were there or what work they were doing.”

Curtis has said that going forward the gym floors will only be refinished during the summer when students and the majority of staff are out of the building. He and Mayor Linda Tyer sent a directive to staff reaffirming that no one may be in the school buildings without the principal’s consent.

School Committee Vice Chair Dan Elias accompanied Curtis to council Tuesday in a show of support to the superintendent. He said the committee is “satisfied” that the issues have been handled and told the council that the update was a “courtesy.”

“The extension of the courtesy of tonight’s presentation to the City Council in its chambers, request should not obscure the lines of responsibility and authority for the operation and authority for operational oversight of the Pittsfield Public Schools,” Elias said. “Said responsibility and authority lie not with the council but with the School Committee."

Councilor Patrick Kavey and other councilors reminded Elias that the council sets the Pittsfield Public Schools’ budget.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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