GM board hears of PCB contamination, splits on Reilly replacement

By Cara Philbin
© 2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Weighing in at three hours, the June 15 meeting of the Green Mountain Unified School District’s board was long, but as recent meetings go it was one of the calmest and most cooperative, even when the board could not agree on a candidate to appoint as a replacement for board member Dennis Reilly, who resigned over a vote on the use of the name Chieftain.

Among the more pressing problems facing the district are the results that show that there’s substantial PCB contamination in the high school. During his regular monthly report, TRSU Facilities Director Todd Parah explained that identifying the sources of the PCBs and remediating them will be a long process that will disrupt the operation of the school to some extent.  Polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs are manmade chemicals used in building materials and in electrical equipment like transformers. Their use has been linked to both cancer and non-cancer health problems and PCBs were outlawed in the United States in 1979.

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Facilities Director Todd Parah speaking at last year's graduation. <small> Telegraph file photo</small>

Facilities Director Todd Parah speaking at last year’s graduation. Telegraph file photo

“Unfortunately,” Parah added, “this will dominate our conversation for the foreseeable future” and has already resulted in “a lot of time and hours on the phone” with the Vermont Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Education.

Parah explained that with the initial testing done, the environmental consultant would return “because part of doing the remediation is finding the source. That’s just identifying where it’s coming from. Then there will be a remediation after that.”

While Parah is “confident that we will get this figured out and we will move our school in a good direction,” he also cautioned the group to be patient when it comes to the process. He said he knows that Chester-Andover families are concerned about when the elementary school will be tested, but that’s not up to the district or the supervisory union.

“What I’ve learned from dealing with the PFAs in Mount Holly is, we’re at the mercy of the state,” said Parah, referring to the contamination of that school’s drinking water.

Though Chester-Andover Elementary is on the schedule for October to December, Parah doesn’t expect to meet that timeline. “The environmental consultants that are doing the testing are also doing the remediation,” and an accumulation of positive tests could easily put them even further behind, he says.

A sampling device for detecting PCBs. <small>Courtesy Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

A sampling device for detecting PCBs. Courtesy Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

Looking toward operating GM in the fall, Parah said the worst case scenario would be closing most of the third floor during remediation. But he believes it would be easy enough to temporarily consolidate classrooms and hasn’t even considered renting portable ones. “We’re talking about building a couple of walls and splitting some double classrooms that have been turned into single classrooms,” he said. “Convenient? No. It won’t be crammed, but it’s going to be different.”

Noting that “we’re kind of high up on the list for that funding if the budget gets approved,” Parah said that the district would have to follow the state’s remediation plan to be eligible for any related funding. As an example, he pointed to carbon filter air scrubbers that capture PCBs and said that they are ready to buy them, but need the state to approve the school’s plans if the state is going to pay for them.

“We’re going to manage it,” said Superintendent Lauren Fierman, “And we are pretty confident that we will be running the school in this building for all of our students in an environment that is safe.”

Fierman told the board that there is a “potential for class-action lawsuit against the people who manufacture PCBs” and the firm of  Lynn, Lynn, Blackman and Manitsky, which has worked with the district before, is asking whether GMUSD would be interested in being a part of it. She explained that this is exploratory at the moment and if it goes forward it would be on a contingency basis, which means that legal fees and expenses would come out of any settlement of the suit. The district would be under no obligation to pay for the action.

Fierman said that the law firm’s Pietro Lynn would be speaking with the Ludlow-Mount Holly board at its next meeting and could speak with the GM board at a future meeting.

No agreement on Cavendish replacement, restructuring effort on hold

While the tone of  the meeting was lighter, the underlying differences that have split the board since February cropped up again when it came to appointing a replacement for Cavendish representative Dennis Reilly. Two candidates – Lisa Sanders and Megan Jones — attended the meeting and spoke to why each wanted to be appointed to the board.

Board chair Deb Brown as she explained her ideas around a committee to look at school restructuring. At the June 15 meeting she set those aside until a new superintendent take over in July of 2024.

Board chair Deb Brown as she explained her ideas around a committee to look at school restructuring. At the June 15 meeting she set those aside until a new superintendent take over in July of 2024.

But when it came to a vote and the paper ballots were collected, the 10 members split five to five. A second paper ballot was taken with the same results. Board Chair Deb Brown asked what should be the next step and Fierman suggested sending the question back to the Cavendish Select Board for a recommendation. That board had passed on making a recommendation at its most recent meeting.

In another move involving Cavendish and representation, Brown announced that the newly formed Building Restructuring Committee would be paused until a new superintendent is hired.

“We’ve decided to table the committee until we have a new superintendent and see what their vision is and how they want to proceed,” said Brown. “I didn’t grasp how scared Cavendish was or Andover. So I think it would be best that anybody that wants to be on that committee, be on that committee when it starts up again, so that everyone can feel better about that.”

The original committee was to be composed of one representative each from the four towns that make up the district — Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester — but Cavendish representative Steve Perani objected to that, asserting that restructuring would have an outsized effect on his town as compared to the others.

Brown made it clear that they would not be starting the next school year with anything different.

Shawn Cunningham contributed to this article.

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