Court case

PETERBOROUGH — The ConVal Regional School District is suing a local tent vendor for $220,000 in damages, claiming it was responsible for permitting failures that derailed in-person learning plans at several schools.

ConVal contracted with the company, Monadnock Tent & Event in Greenfield, to rent 85 commercial tents from the first day of school on Sept. 8 to Oct. 31, according to records filed with the lawsuit.

Of those, 65 tents were large enough to need town permits, according to the lawsuit. But ConVal alleges the company failed to provide the required documentation for all but two of those tents, preventing them from getting permits and being used.

An inspection from the town of Peterborough noted deficiencies in how the two properly documented tents were installed, meaning they too could not be used, the lawsuit claims.

The school district said it made “numerous requests” for the documents, to no avail.

“Defendant has provided none of the required documentation, or any other acceptable documentation for any tent, other than the two Aztec tents which were unable to pass inspection,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant never remedied the deficiencies in the two Aztec tents.”

The tents were a key part of ConVal’s reopening plan, which involved turning them into outdoor classrooms for safer in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, most students in grades 7 through 12 started remotely because of the tent-permitting issues.

As a workaround, ConVal had to purchase many smaller tents that would not require permitting, rewire the electrical systems it had already set up and reorganize students into smaller classes to fit into the smaller spaces, according to the lawsuit.

ConVal says it returned to its full reopening plan as of this week.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the northern district of Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester, according to the school district, which announced the move in a news release late that afternoon.

“This failure resulted in significant disruptions to the start of the school year, putting an increased burden on our staff, students, and their families during an already challenging time,” ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said in the news release. “After a good faith effort on our part to resolve this issue, this step is a last resort for the district as we work to recoup the taxpayer funding that went toward tents that we were ultimately unable to use.”

Representatives of Monadnock Tent & Event did not immediately respond to an email or a phone message after business hours Wednesday. A reporter who called a phone number listed on the company’s website was told he had the wrong number. The number is also listed on a contract addendum as belonging to company owner, John Hopkins.

A lawyer representing the company, Silas Little, also did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday evening. In a letter last month to the district, he denied that Monadnock Tent & Event had breached the contract.

ConVal covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple.

ConVal’s lawsuit says it signed a contract Aug. 11, and the company began setting the tents up the next day. According to a copy of the contract filed in court, ConVal agreed to pay about $456,000 in all, half as an up-front deposit.

The school district now claims it is owed much of that $228,490 back, in addition to compensation for the costs of setting up other tents after the permitting issues.

The lawsuit alleges breach of contract and violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, among other claims.

In its lawsuit, ConVal described a series of meetings and communications with Monadnock Tent & Event and Peterborough officials in August and September.

After meeting with town officials in August, ConVal asked the company to submit the required engineering documents, according to the lawsuit. The district said it then applied for permits Sept. 1, but Monadnock Tent & Event could not provide the supporting documents except for two tents that were installed later.

When the town inspected the two tents, it found that staking and tie-downs were not installed at the right locations and the tie-downs did not meet the minimum strength needed, according to a Sept. 16 letter of deficiency signed by Tim Herlihy, Peterborough’s building official.

In early September, ConVal also hired an independent engineering firm, which concluded that the tents would fail inspections even if the necessary documents were provided, according to the lawsuit.

“Having received no cooperation from Defendant — either to provide the required documents or to remedy the deficiencies in the installed tents incapable of passing Town inspection — and already facing a significant and irreparable delay in the start of school, ConVal was forced to buy a number of 20x20 foot tents (which fall under the 400-square-foot minimum required for permitting) to be used as outdoor classrooms,” the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for ConVal eventually sent a letter telling the company to remove the unusable tents so new ones could take their place. The Sept. 25 letter said the school district would agree to continue renting the smaller 20-by-20 tents at the agreed-upon price of $44,800 but demanded a refund of $183,690 for the rest and said the school district would seek to recoup its other costs.

ConVal’s lawsuit says Monadnock Tent & Event removed the tents but did not provide a refund.

In a Sept. 24 letter, Little, an attorney representing the company, rebuffed the district’s claims.

“[ConVal] is attempting to change the terms of the contract after the contract has been executed and is seeking to avoid the responsibilities [ConVal] has under the terms of the written agreement,” Little wrote, arguing that the contract indemnifies the company against lawsuits and makes the school district responsible for obtaining permits. (It also says the company “will provide any required documents.”)

Little demanded ConVal pay the balance due under the contract.

In its news release Wednesday, ConVal said seventh- and eighth-grade students at South Meadow School in Peterborough began in-person classes Monday. Some ConVal High School students — who were divided into two cohorts to attend on alternating weeks — also returned.

“In-person learning was scheduled to have begun for those students on Sept. 8,” ConVal said in the release.

Students at Great Brook School in Antrim, which was also affected, had returned previously, according to Rizzo Saunders.

Great Brook was able to bring in-person students back sooner because they were able to combine the 20-by-20 foot tents with indoor space, while having safety and mitigation protocols in place, according to a district spokeswoman.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS