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Insurance for school fire causes heated debate at council meeting

Colonial Beach Schools Superintendent Kathleen Beane showed up at the town council meeting on May 8 to answer any questions that the council may have had. However, after she left, some council members expressed strong feelings towards the school board and voiced their opinions, while Westmoreland County Supervisor Larry Roberson, who is married to School Board Member Vicki Roberson, stood up for the school system as a citizen.

Despite a motion by Councilwoman Wanda Goforth to keep public comments to three minutes and groups to five (voted in favor of unanimously), the council meeting last Thursday was consumed with public comments and debate over school information not being relayed in a manner that satisfied all involved.  

It began with a question from Councilwoman Linda Brubaker, who is the council POC (point of contact) for the school system.

Regarding the Jan. 5 early morning fire that gutted the old two-story structure, long abandoned after storm and earthquake damage, Brubaker asked, “Have we heard anything about the insurance?”

Beane replied, “Not a word. I actually had a conference call Monday morning with an attorney with the consulting firm that the school board has hired to help us with this issue. They are looking at legal counseling to see if we can get things to move forward.”

Beane was asked, “Have we heard anything about the cause of the fire?” to which she replied, “No”.
Councilwoman Wanda Goforth followed up on Brubaker’s question, saying, “I thought by law, they had to respond in thirty days.”

Beane said, “The insurance has responded, saying basically, they’re not going to give us any money.”
Many of the members seemed very surprised by this answer.  

Beane said that the school may have to go into mediation. She reported that the insurance company (Vacorp) is trying to find every loophole in the contract to get out of paying the claim.

Beane said Vacorp has sent a three-page letter with a list of reasons. She agreed to make copies available to the council.

Beane ended by saying that they are waiting to hear from the attorney, who seems confident that Vacorp will not be able to get out of their contract for coverage. Vacorp is not a traditional insurance company, but rather an insurance pool; however they still provide coverage. Currently, the only money Vacorp has paid is $100,000 to cover the school’s moving expenses. Beane reported that $75,000 of that money has already been spent.

Councilman Jim Chiarello spent a considerable amount of time stating that someone from the school system should call the state corporation commission; he believed that would move things along.

During public comments, Glenda Chiarello, wife of Councilman Jim Chiarello, spoke in regards to the school’s news from the insurance company and the proposed real estate tax increase of $0.23.

Mrs. Chiarello said, “I was pretty shocked tonight to hear that the insurance claim was denied.” She said to the council that she noticed their faces and could see they were surprised, as well.

“I’m just wondering why it wasn’t made clear prior to this; I want to know when the school board found out, and why it was not made clear. I’m pretty upset about it, actually.”

Mrs. Chiarello said she felt it was detrimental information and hindered the council’s ability to move forward with the budget.

After discussing the proposed $0.23 real estate tax increase, Mrs. Chiarello said she does not envy the council’s job, but feels there is going to have be a little bit of compromise. “The town’s needs are going to have to give a little; the school’s needs are going to have to give considerably; and the citizens are going to have to give. I know there is going to have to be a tax increase, but add $0.04 to what you are already talking about, and do the math and think about what people can handle. There’s just so much we can handle.”

County Supervisor Larry Roberson, husband of school board member Vicki Roberson, addressed Glenda Chiarello, “Your hostility for the school has been duly noticed for quite a while.” Turning towards the council, Roberson asked, “It’s not a big surprise? You thought the insurance company was willing to pay you money?”

Roberson continued with sarcasm, “If you thought an insurance company was going to hand out money, then I’ve got some swampland I’ll sell you real cheap.”

Becoming more serious, he said, “Insurance companies only want to collect money; they don’t want to give it out. It happened this week, at the very beginning of the week. [referring to Vacorp’s response to the school’s insurance claim]

“The school board hasn’t even had a chance to discuss it themselves among each other. They have contacted the company that they have hired (to mediate for the school); that company is working on the next phase. It’s not a huge surprise that they were denied; everybody kind of figured that.”

Roberson turned the conversation towards the cause of the fire. After his comments, he stated he was speaking as a citizen.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s arson; everybody knows it’s arson on that school, but the state has not said it yet. All the stuff is in, I think, Beltsville, Maryland, being examined. The state won’t say anything about it until they come up with an exact cause, but the guy told me every day, they get closer and closer [to solving the cause]. And I shouldn’t be speaking because I’m not on the school board, but I know it just started.

Roberson said the insurance company, Vacorp, is the same company used by the school in Louisa County when the unusual east coast earthquake hit. Roberson said that originally, Vacorp said they wouldn’t pay that claim either, but eventually, through the help of the same company Colonial Beach has hired, Louisa County received millions of dollars, according to Roberson.

Brubaker cut in, saying, “Once again, I respectfully disagree with you.”

Roberson responded, “Go right ahead.”

Brubaker continued, “I’m the POC (point of contact) for the school board to the council. I was not made aware of that. Had I not asked that question tonight, I don’t think this body would have been made aware of it.”

Roberson argued, “I don’t think you need to know about it until the school board has a chance to discuss it.”  
Brubaker again disagreed, “This body is trying very hard to support the school system. Myself and all the members up here, it makes it very difficult when it is perceived that information, whether it’s true or not, that information is being withheld from the council and from the citizens.”

Roberson said, “You would not do that! You would have a meeting first; it was that important, because your attorney would tell you to do that first, before you let it out. That’s exactly what they were doing, but they went ahead and told you first.”
Councilman Pete Bone requested that the meeting stick to pu
blic comment; Mayor Ham agreed, saying, “This is public comment, not a debate.”

Councilman Chiarello began an exchange with Roberson stating that the amount of time has been too long. Mayor Ham tried to redirect the meeting to public comments, so Chiarello took the podium as a citizen to comment.

Chiarello said, “I, as a citizen of this town, ok, have watched the building deteriorate for four months. That building, I don’t care whose responsibility it is, should be down already. You can say the insurance company won’t give a cause and they are still investigating it. You know mitigation money is supposed to be available to take care of situations. You need to stand up for what’s right. This town needs to stand up for what’s right. You need to hold people accountable to do what they need to do. Make the phone call to the state corporation commission and get off their butts. I don’t care; you know this is totally unreasonable. I’m not blaming the school board; I’m not blaming anybody, but what’s reasonable is they should make the phone calls that you need to make.”

Larry Roberson took the podium next with a last rebuttal for the school system. “Jim, they can’t touch the building, and you can get off your dead butt and do whatever the school board can; it doesn’t matter. Right now, I think the attorney will tell you it’s in the hands of the insurance company. We’re not allowed to touch that building; nobody at the school board or anybody, until such time that they release it. Yes, it’s been entirely way too long; I’ve got no gripe with that. It should have been cleared, but when the insurance company will not release it, there it sits. That’s why they spent $6,000 for the fence; I’m going into the fencing business because of what that cost. That’s how they made it “safe”. Pretty soon, they will release it, and the school board will be able to do something about it.

Roberson said that until the insurance company decides to release it, no one can do anything with it.

Roberson calmed down and stated that he is just as upset that nothing can be done, but assured the council that the school is not trying to hide anything.

Eventually, order was restored to the meeting, and business matters listed on the agenda took five minutes to complete.

—Linda Farneth

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