Southern District asking to be indemnified for suits in school lead paint issues Lawyers believe neither district nor Egremont can be liable-free if children develop problems

SHEFFIELD —A motion made by E. Bonnie Silvers and approved by the Southern Berkshire Regional School District school committee includes a clause that deems the district and the school committee harmless for the wellbeing of the children attending the school district.

The clause was part of a larger motion that provided updates and new proposals for the South Egremont School, a one-room schoolhouse that was contaminated with lead paint.

The motion made by Silvers includes the following clause at the end, “the agreement was modified and will be discussed by our chair tomorrow (Dec.6) with our attorneys that there will be an amendment to our agreement stating that SBRSD will be held harmless should there be any issues related to the wellbeing of the children attending the district.”

Silvers read her motion to the school committee during a meeting on Nov. 29. The motion was unanimously approved.

“I asked the attorneys to insert the part that would hold the district and particularly, the school committee, harmless should there be any actions related to claims. So, it’s an indemnification of the school committee members,” said Silvers in an interview, discussing the clause of her motion that would supposedly protect the school committee from legal backlash.

However, two local lawyers whom the Berkshire Record consulted have expressed a different opinion from the school committee’s.

Both lawyers said that in a scenario in which they were representing a client whose child became ill because of lead paint, the school committee’s indemnity would not necessarily hold up in court. The liable party would be chosen by the judge presiding over the case, regardless of what the school committee says.

The town of Egremont still has to agree with the proposal. Nothing has been signed yet. Just because the school district and the town agree upon a set of standards, that does not preclude lawsuits from being filed on behalf of children who may become ill with lead poisoning if the school is opened while still being contaminated, according to the lawyers, who asked not to be identified.

Earlier in the committee meeting, Dennis Sears, a longtime member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District school committee Sears unofficially resigned during the meeting over more concerns of the contamination of the South Egremont School.

It was the opinion of the school committee that the South Egremont School open as soon as possible. “I think it’s important that we move forward and open the school as quickly as possible,” said David Travis, a committee member, “And to have to wait to schedule another meeting would definitely postpone the opening of the school by weeks.”

Prior to the unofficial resignation of Sears, there were unanimous opinions on the ongoing issue of payment from the town of Egremont regarding the South Egremont School. Earlier last month, the town’s select board voted to withhold a payment of $382,000 to the district.

“Let me make sure I understand, what we’re doing is we’re voting on sending a demand letter to the town of Egremont for not paying their share of the assessments per the regional school district?” Sears asked.

Silvers validated that question, “Correct,” she said. After the first vote passed, the discussion became more heated. Silvers introduced the second motion regarding the remediation of the lead paint contamination for the school.

Immediately after Silvers concluded her proposed motion, Sears stated, “I don’t believe that we can actually vote on that, because we have not seen what the changed agreement will look like. I think we need to wait until after the lawyer makes the changes, and then we will have to review it and then vote.”

Silvers responded to Sears by explaining that the discussion brought up in executive session and right now the school committee was to vote on the motion, “The motion made during executive session was passed, we’re reporting out the actions of executive session, I’ll turn to the chair for a ruling on that,” said Silvers, in response to Sears.

Sears responded: “Well, I think we would be extremely foolish —”

“I’m turning to the chair for a ruling on that,” Silvers said, interrupting Sears.

“I believe in the meeting that I asked the chair if we would meet again to review the document prepared by the lawyer,” said Sears.

Other school committee members disagreed that Sears had asked the question. “I don’t recall that,” said one member. Another said, “I recall that there was one objection and nine voted yes.”

Sears continued by further expressing his dismay, “I’m just telling you I think we would be foolish, as school committee members, to not take that next step of seeing whatever is written before we, in effect, send that.”

One of the new members of the school committee, Kenneth Knox, said “I will also remark that this is not a signed agreement between two parties, it’s a proposal which will have to come back to us. So we’re not signing our names on something that we don’t understand. We will get a chance to look at the agreement once it’s been reached. I agree with my colleague that it’s important for us to move forward.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Chair, I resign. I’ll be leaving, that’s it. I’m not going to be that foolish,” said Sears.

However, after the meeting was over, it became clear that a verbal resignation does not constitute an official resignation. Sears said that he has not resigned since he has not sent in an official written statement detailing his resignation. As of the publishing date of this article, Sears still sits on the school committee.

As Sears left the building, the school committee voted unanimously in favor of all parts of Silvers’ motion.

During the next school committee meeting, on Thursday, Dec. 6 at Mt. Everett High School, the open elections of chair and vice chair were scheduled to take place. Silvers has stated that she is running for another term as chair. When asked how confident she is about winning the position, she said she did not have any guesses as to what may happen.