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In city council appearance, Superintendent Curtis deflects blame over hazardous fumes incident in two city schools

Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Joe Curtis, speaking in city council chambers on December 14th, 2022.
Josh Landes
PCTV Screenshot
Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Joe Curtis, speaking in city council chambers on December 14th, 2022.

The superintendent of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts public schools was questioned about a November incident where students and staff at two high schools were exposed to hazardous fumes at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

After an emergency dismissal on November 18th from the Pittsfield and Taconic High Schools due to overwhelming odors from chemicals used to treat gymnasium floors, WAMC broke the story that art teacher Lisa Ostellino had attempted to sound the alarm about the situation at least a day before Superintendent Joe Curtis took action. Tuesday night, Curtis came before the city council to again attempt to explain why hundreds of students and staff members were exposed to the fumes.

“It's not that we're trying to push our responsibility to someone else, but the building maintenance is the city's responsibility,” the superintendent told the council.

That sentiment became the running theme of Curtis’s appearance. He was repeatedly pushed to explain why he didn’t know that potentially dangerous work was being done while school was in session.

“The city maintains our school buildings, 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," Curtis said. "And I would often as a building principal, you know, walking the quads at Morningside and find, for instance, a plumber in the bathroom, and not know why they were there, what work they were doing.”

Curtis admitted that Ostellino had in fact contacted his office about her concerns, but said that she should have emailed him instead of calling.

“I had explained to that staff member, as she well knows, that if she had emailed, which is something that unfortunately is always on me and always in my possession, as we know, no matter where you are, the alert comes up on your phone, you see it that I would have been well informed in a much quicker fashion, and I did say that to her in our communication on Friday and over the weekend,” he said.

The superintendent responded to Ostellino’s well-telegraphed concerns that safety data sheets about the project – which detail the hazardous nature of the chemicals at play – had not been available to staffers prior to the incident. Curtis simultaneously pleaded ignorance, shifted the blame to Pittsfield High School Principal Maggie Esko-Harrington, and admitted that the sheets were incomplete, backdated seven years, and only available the day of the emergency dismissal.

“Principal Esko informed me that she made copies available in the main office on Friday, November 18th," said the superintendent. "There was a question raised to relate it to pages missing from the safety data sheet that was available at PHS. It appears that when Principal Esko was provided the safety data sheet, only the front side of the of each page was scanned and copied before she received it. There was a question raised to the date of the safety data sheet. A Google search of the gym floor finish reveals a safety data sheet data 2015, but with the revision date of 2018. [Custodial] Director [Daniel] Moore has reached out to the floor refinishing contractor to inquire about the version of the safety data sheet we had in possession and has not yet been provided with the response.”

The document provided to WAMC by Ostellino shows a revision date of 2015, not 2018.

Curtis told the council that the district’s athletic director, Jim Abel, had resigned over the incident on December 1st. But neither that news nor Curtis’s explanations satisfied councilors.

“My concern with your different letters that went out- It sounds like a blame game, and no one took ownership," said at-large city councilor Karen Kalinowsky, who worked the Pittsfield Public Schools as a police officer before her retirement.

She said that while Curtis had publicly apologized and Abel had resigned, it did not strike her that responsibility had been taken.

“For you to indicate that, I didn't know, I didn't know, I didn't know. Well, know who should have known? Your principals," Kalinowsky told Curtis. "There's no way that somebody had closed up the gym to get work done without the principal being notified because it would change the way the gym classes were run. You couldn't use the gym. So, someone did know other than the director. The fact that he resigned- I sure hope it wasn't pressured, because he's the low man on the totem pole. And, you know, I have not spoken to him. So, you know, I don't know the indication there, but I tend to find out when something big goes down, it's always the lowest man that gets, or a woman, that gets dismissed and blamed for it.”

Kalinowsky asked Curtis how often he is in communication with principals across the district.

“Well, I meet with them- They meet every other week," responded the superintendent. "Some meetings are related to curriculum specifically, and the curriculum director. Some meetings, the Deputy Superintendent leads, and I primarily lead now in this role the District Leadership Council, which is once a quarter. For the meeting that I cited in this letter, I didn't ask, but I told them that I'd be taking time from another meeting, and I met with them after this was furnished to them in writing.”

As Kalinowsky continued her questioning, Curtis again attempted to draw an equivalence between the gym floor refinishing and the hazardous chemicals involved in the project and more mundane maintenance.

“I mean, when you meet with the principals, do they tell you what's going on in the buildings?” asked the councilor.

“Such as?" responded Curtis. "Councilor, I will fully admit, like, issues of maintenance, unless it's a problem, I'm not aware of when a toilet is being changed, there’s a plumbing issue to be addressed. That I'm not aware of that. No.”

“I wasn’t asking about that," said Kalinowsky. "I was asking about the floor.”

Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey – a critic of Curtis’s appointment from the get go last spring – questioned the superintendent next about his inaction about the fumes a day before the emergency dismissal.

“The one thing that I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around, and maybe you can help me through this, when I've spoken with students and educators over this, they've, the students have said they were putting on masks, not because of COVID-19, but because of the scent," said Kavey. "And they were telling their teachers about this, who were then communicating that with the principals. So, you would think if that that was happening that the principals would have immediately found you, and you were with one of them- So did that not happen? Did that happen?”

Curtis said he had been at Pittsfield High School for hours with both Esko-Harrington and a representative of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doing a walkthrough of the building. He admitted to noticing the fumes and doing nothing before attempting to shift the responsibility of the communication lapse once again to Esko-Harrington.

“We did an observation as part of our practice in the mathematics wing and in a foreign language classroom, and then we had a post conference back in the principal's office. So, you know, there's certainly, as I was saying, there was, you could smell it. And my sense was that it wasn't overwhelming in the locations I was in," said Curtis. "But, and then when I had left the building along with the DESE representative, that's when Ms. Ekso texted me with basically the words that I shared her my report. I can't speak to the abundance of complaints that she received, or did she receive many emails or radio. She did not provide me with that information.”

“I would just hope that if there were students and teachers going to their supervisor, that it would be brought to your attention," said Kavey. "Especially-”

“I would hope so as well,” Curtis interjected.

“-an issue where we have an educator saying they were getting sick to their stomach and we have students saying they had headaches," continued Kavey. "It just- It's a serious issue. It has to do with their health and safety. And I would just expect your principals to bring it to your attention a little bit quicker.”

“Yes,” said Curtis.

‘I appreciate you making an apology," said Kavey. "But I would agree with Councilor Kalinowsky on the tone of the original letter we received, and I did not like how we were reminded a few times that the school committee and the superintendent oversees the schools and that you're here- You are here as a courtesy to us, but I just didn't like the tone of that opening statement. And as [At-large City] Councilor [Earl] Persip had said, I’d just like to remind you, we decide your budget. So, I mean, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the safety of our students and our staff. And with the educators that I've spoken with, I've let them know, and for anyone out there listening, if they ever feel unsafe in the school, reach out.”

In an interview with WAMC after the incident, Mayor Linda Tyer described the situation as a big mistake while saying she had complete trust in Curtis. For her part, Ostellino told the council at a November meeting that the situation had shed light on larger structural issues within the district.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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