Parent concerns delay asbestos work at Miller-Driscoll School

Asbestos abatement planned for the spring break (April 11-15) at Miller-Driscoll School has been postponed until the summer. The work has been the subject of numerous posts on social media and a flood of emails expressing concern about the project.

Chris Burney, Wilton’s director of facilities and energy management, told members of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee at their meeting on Thursday, March 3, the postponement had been the subject of discussion among himself, First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice and Turner Construction for several weeks.

“Several weeks ago, it seems, I was asked by Lynne Vanderslice if we could see a way to modify our schedule without impacting the project negatively and we started looking at that, we being Turner, Mike Douyard and myself. … we felt comfortable saying we could move that abatement to the summer and not negatively impact the project. And in doing so alleviate the concerns of what was starting to be a large number of parents. At one point yesterday I received information there were more than 140 emails circulating with information and concerns and some disinformation, misinformation, but nevertheless there was an increasing concern among the parents.”

Burney said the decision was made to schedule the work for the summer at an operating work group meeting. That meeting took place Feb. 23.

When the matter erupted like “wildfire” on social media early last week, Vanderslice told committee members, she “made the call” to announce the postponement on March 1. This elicited criticism from committee members who were upset the decision was made without their input, particularly since the announcement was made two days before their meeting. Committee members were notified via an email on March 1, which was also made public.

“We have a significant amount of legal spending as a result of this project,” Vanderslice told the committee, spending that goes beyond the Sensible Wilton lawsuit. “As a result of parent concerns,” she continued, she was “very pleased” to avoid more. She referred specifically to ongoing communication with an attorney who is representing the Kohler family. She cited an “acceleration in the tone” of his letters to the town requesting information about the abatement process to the point where she had to bring in environmental counsel.

Vanderslice believed putting off the abatement until the beginning of summer, well before students return to school, would avoid more costs to the town and help alleviate parents’ concerns

Committee members were assured the schedule change would not adversely affect the work flow nor would it adversely impact the budget.

Burney, who is an engineer, said he has been doing asbestos abatement since the 80s, said he believes in the process and that it is safe, but “the right thing to do was to take heed of those concerns” and schedule the project for the summer.

While he doesn’t think they need to do it, he believed rescheduling was “an option that would make a large part of the community feel better.”

Committee members questioned why this became such an inflamed issue since there have been several hazardous abatement procedures conducted already with little outcry.

“This has been on the schedule for a year,” vice chair Glenn Hemmerle said.

Vanderslice responded that the situation was escalated by a few people and an attorney.

Throughout the meeting a group of mothers waited for the public comment period and when she got the opportunity to speak Patricia Kohler sharply rebuked the committee and Vanderslice.

“Parents are concerned and they are scared and i understand this is a national issue. You have buildings that are starting to need work, but they are filled with lead and asbestos and PCBs,” she said. “We thought when you moved the abatement to the summer you actually heard our concerns. But now that I’m here, it sounds like you think those concerns are silly. We’re not experts on this. And no, the information has not gotten to us.”

She said parents were simply seeking information but “you just want us to trust you. You don’t really want our input.”

She said she is not planning to sue. “We wanted information which we have many emails to you so we can determine for ourselves if we want to attend the school. That is all.

Pointing out that former Chairman Bruce Hampson was “attentive” to her concerns, she said her attorney just wanted “to speak to someone and understand what different processes are being used. We were told ‘no, now that you have a lawyer everything has to be in writing and we have yet to get answers to those questions. …’

“We just want to understand things and I think it’s a problem if you couldn’t have answered those questions. If you had not put off the abatement, many parents would have come here tonight and you could have answered the questions. And maybe you would have just gone forward with your abatement.

“So don’t blame us for putting off the abatement. If your ducks are all in a row, go forward with your abatement, but be willing to answer questions.”

Vanderslice said that since Kohler is now represented by an attorney she could not respond directly to her.

Hemmerle was perplexed by the parents’ claim that information was difficult to get. He pointed out there was a meeting with parents in October that included a full presentation with TRC, which oversees the abatement process, Turner and Tai Soo Kim, the architectural firm. “We had everyone on site,” he said, “and nine parents showed up.”

More recently, at the project’s parent committee meeting on Jan. 4, the minutes show there was a lengthy discussion of the abatement process. Project Manager Mike Douyard “explained how the abatement process works, utilizing air samples and he stated that a Hygienist is always on site. Parent committee member, Steve DiNapoli from Big East Labs also offered insight into how the abatement process works.” The minutes, as well as the “two-week look-ahead schedule” are on the renovation project’s website

“Can we get things in writing? This is where the asbestos is, this is what they were doing?” Kohler asked.

“How do people not know?” Hemmerle responded. “What more can we do for you?”

“When people ask for information answer them. When they write letters, answer them,” Kohler said.

There was general agreement another meeting should be held before the end of the school year to make parents aware of the abatement work to be done over the summer.

The next regularly scheduled parent committee meeting is March 15 at 5 p.m. at Miller-Driscoll.

The next building committee meeting will be Thursday, April 7, at 5 p.m. Meetings have been held in the Wilton High School Library Mezzanine, but Vanderslice said there have been complaints that the room is not handicap accessible and perhaps they could be held elsewhere.

This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared March 4. It corrects the timeline of the decision to postpone the asbestos abatement and includes some expanded quotes.