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Armstrong School District attorneys ready to defend against lawsuit

KITTANNING — Attorneys for the Armstrong School District said they are busy gathering information and talking to those they plan to have testify in court on Tuesday.

Solicitor Gary Matta said Friday that he is preparing the district's defense of a lawsuit, filed Wednesday by current school board members and newly-elected members, over the asbestos abatement projects scheduled in four district schools.

'We plan to defend the district against the claim that completing the asbestos abatement in the four schools will bind the new board members in terms of future building projects," Matta said. "We don't see how it could bind the board since all of the work is going to be completed well before the new board takes office in December."

"While I understand the reasoning behind the argument, it's a matter that the board legally voted on the matter and signed legal contracts with companies to do the work," he said. "My understanding is that the crews are mobilizing and are ready to start the projects, so either way, it's going to cost the district money."

Work on the projects is slated to start Monday, however Matta said he believed one of the projects was delayed due to reasons apart from the lawsuit. District facilities director Bill Henley was unavailable Friday to discuss the planned start dates for the projects.

The lawsuit, filed this week by attorney Charles Pascal on behalf of current directors Chris Choncek, James Rearic and Joseph Close, along with four people nominated during the May primary election to serve on the board: Paul Lobby, Larry Robb, Amy Lhote and Stanley Berdell. Barring any changes in the general election, they will take office in December.

Judge James Arner, a Clarion County jurist, will hear arguments at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the Armstrong County Courthouse.

The plaintiffs have publicly stated their opposition to renovation projects being planned by the current board majority. The asbestos abatement is part of that plan.

After filing the lawsit, Pascal called the asbestos abatement projects "an attempt by the lame duck board to force the new board into action they don't want."

"As we understand it, they have the asbestos removal going forward with no plan to restore the buildings," he has said. "They're trying to bind the board to a course of action."

According to the plaintiffs' complaint, there is no plan to return three school buildings to a usable condition following the abatement, as a renovation project has not been formally approved.

"Without any plan to return the buildings to habitable or functional condition, the asbestos abatement is irresponsible and reckless, and will leave the buildings in an educationally deficient and potentially unsafe and uninhabitable condition," the lawsuit contends. "The actions of the board majority in this regard are an attempt to bind and hamstring the new board majority to a course of action."

The plaintiffs are asking a judge to enjoin the district to halt the abatement projects.

Listed as defendants are the Armstrong School District and directors James Solak, Rose Stitt, John Monroe, D. Royce Smeltzer and Sara Yassem, along with companies contracted to do the work — Environmental Assurance Company, Inc. of Indianapolis, Dore & Associates Contracting of Michigan and Abmech, Inc. of West Homestead.

Matta said there have been discussions in the district concerning restoration of the areas affected by the abatement, such as replacing the floor tiles and other necessary equipment. The discussions have not been held during public meetings and no cost estimates have been made public.

The asbestos abatement project had been part of a multi-school renovation plan. In March 2011, the asbestos removal project was separated from the renovation plans that had stalled as a result of the Pennsylvania Department of Education seeking a second public hearing before deciding whether or not to reimburse the district to aid in the bond repayment process.

The district has control of $80 million in funds made available via bonds for the renovation projects.

Contracts for the combined $640,700 asbestos projects were awarded in March and April for abatement at Kittanning and Ford City high schools and the Elderton school complex. The contracts were signed at the end of May.

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