EASTHAM — The Nauset Regional School Building Committee approved key budget modifications for the high school renovation project on Oct. 6, one week after being forced to abruptly adjourn a session and seek a deadline extension from the state.
On Sept. 29, the committee met remotely to vote on “value engineering” refinements — that is, ways to shave building costs — after learning that shifts in the market had pushed the $131.8-million project $1.35 million over budget. The committee and its project manager had already been more than two weeks behind schedule in submitting budget documents to the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA), so “the pressure was on,” said building committee chair Greg Levasseur. Before they could approve the documents, however, the virtual meeting was hijacked.
Just minutes into the Zoom session, as representatives from Daedalus, the company managing the project, posted slides of its budget presentation, uninvited handwriting began appearing on the screen. Then, multiple disembodied voices began speaking loudly over the presenters, using racial slurs and sexually explicit insults. The hackers also manipulated the chat function to make it appear as though hateful messages were being sent by members of the committee.
When Arlynn Consiglio, executive assistant to the school superintendent, attempted to remove the intruders from the meeting, she saw none to remove, thus confirming the meeting software had been hacked. Once the meeting organizers were finally able to close the session, interim Supt. Brooke Clenchy said she could see that the hackers were still trying to enter, which she said gave her the impression the intrusion might be automated.
“We tried to go through with the meeting,” said Clenchy, “because it was that important.” The committee needed to submit budget documents to the MSBA, which is covering more than 25 percent of the costs, in order to be ready to send the project out for bids on schedule. Following the hacking incident, the project manager arranged for the building committee to receive a one-week extension. When the group reconvened on Oct. 6, they did so in person, at Nauset Middle School.
Levasseur said that, despite the budget whittling, the project has not actually been diminished in any substantive way. Changes involved swapping higher-priced materials for less expensive ones, he said. Instead of using a petroleum-based siding for exteriors to replace the aging wood currently in place, a modified wood material called Kebony will be used. That will save about $700,000, said Levasseur. Similarly, the cafeteria floor will be porcelain tile instead of bluestone, saving about $75,000. Levasseur said that this sort of tinkering is normal and will continue for a few months as the plan gets finishing touches.
A similar hacking episode occurred two days before the building committee meeting, during a meeting of the Nauset Schools Policy Subcommittee. On the agenda for that meeting, ironically, was a review of district policy for public participation at school committee meetings.
Less than two minutes after the barrage of racist and vulgar language began, the committee ended the session. “It’s clear that members of the public are here who have never attended our meetings before,” said committee member Josh Stewart as the intrusion began. Eastham Elementary School Committee member Ann Crozier said that no such interruption had ever happened before during a school Zoom meeting.
After the hacking on Oct. 6, however, Clenchy said that new security measures would be put in place for virtual meetings, though she did not specify what kind. She said she did not yet know whether the intruders were local. “Because our information is posted publicly, it could have been anyone — local or in another part of the globe,” she said. Clenchy said the district reported the incidents to the police.
Eileen Belastock, director of technology and information for the Nauset Regional Schools, did not respond to questions about her investigation or on new security measures before press time.
Levasseur said that the company managing the school project website has been hacked before.
According to Levasseur, the high school renovation will go out for bids in February 2022. The school project website estimates that the new campus will be finished in fall 2025. The project includes renovating six of the eight existing buildings on campus and adding a handful of new structures, including a new science building and cafeteria. During construction, the school will use temporary classrooms.
The renovation has been in the works since 2016, according to the school website. The current campus opened in 1972 and is in need of significant upgrades. Many classrooms lack adequate natural light ,and students say the school is always either too hot or too cold. Levasseur said, however, that the 50-year-old campus is in great shape structurally.
“We build these schools to last 40 to 50 years,” he said. “Once we renovate them, these buildings are going to last another 50.”