REGIONAL- Nearly two years ago, the mere threat of seeking legal counsel was enough to catch the attention of at least two of three contractors embroiled in a long-standing, far-ranging dispute with …
REGIONAL- Nearly two years ago, the mere threat of seeking legal counsel was enough to catch the attention of at least two of three contractors embroiled in a long-standing, far-ranging dispute with ISD 2142 officials over construction problems at the North Woods and South Ridge schools. But initial contacts went nowhere, and issues from cracked sidewalks and pipes to sinking athletics fields and sagging floors continue to plague the schools and their occupants.
Now that the district has its response to the coronavirus pandemic well in hand, Superintendent Reggie Engebritson told school board members at a Feb. 9 working session that it’s time once again to get serious about holding the contractors accountable.
“Right before COVID, the plan was to try to send out letters to the contractors, letting them know we were putting them on notice,” Engebritson said, “and then COVID hit and that didn’t happen.”
Engebritson said that she had received a referral to an attorney in the Twin Cities who specializes in construction-related cases.
“We know it’s going to cost a little bit of money because it’s an attorney out of the Cities,” Engebritson said, “but we feel like we really need somebody specialized to help us look into this.”
Engebritson said that preliminary contact had been made with the attorney, who said he needed to review his client list against the list of various contractors involved in the school construction for any possible conflicts of interest before agreeing to come on board.
Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI), Kraus-Anderson, and Architectural Resources Inc. were the primary designers and contractors involved in building the two schools— South Ridge in 2011 and North Woods in 2012, totaling $60 million of an overall $78.8 million school restructuring plan.
Work was ongoing in the spring of 2011 on Cherry and South Ridge schools when it was discovered that JCI had approved more than $3.5 million worth of change orders without the knowledge of the school board and in violation of the school district’s contract with JCI. Elimination of skylights, insulation, exterior and interior window caulking, and high-efficiency LED lighting were among the changes JCI approved that likely reduced the operating efficiency of the buildings from what was planned.
JCI resisted efforts by the Timberjay to obtain a copy of its subcontract with ARI, resulting in a long legal battle that resulted in a change in state law clearly establishing that subcontracts are indeed public documents available for inspection.
One of the first problems that became evident was the poor and deteriorating conditions of the athletic fields at both South Ridge and North Woods, a problem JCI admitted it had some responsibility for in 2013.
Uneven turf with poor drainage and sinking football sidelines remain more than seven years later, as described by multiple board members and school officials at the Feb. 9 meeting.
Five years later, in 2018, a laundry list of structural issues at both schools was documented in a report to the board by then building and grounds supervisor Tony Buccanero.
Floors in the music room and elementary bathroom at South Ridge were sinking, and doorways were sinking and pulling away from walls, Buccanero said. At North Woods, the floors in the field house were “sinking away from the building, possibly resting on plumbing,” and a parking lot drainpipe was cracked, creating a safety issue.
“We already paid 70-some million dollars, and we shouldn’t have this happening,” Buccanero declared.
But as an inspection conducted in May 2019 by Forensic Experts, LLC revealed, there was far more to be added to the list of flaws possibly due to substandard construction. The report for North Woods that was provided to the board at the Feb. 9 meeting included the following:
• The front entry concrete sidewalk had settled and cracked.
• A library window head leaks during rainstorms.
• Built-in cabinets below the windows had shifted and detached from the wall.
• The boy’s bathroom toilets are delivering dangerously hot water for the first two hours every day.
• Room 116 concrete slab on grade displays differential settlement at the construction joint.
• The mechanical room exterior fascia screws that attach the exterior metal panels to the structure back out annually resulting in water ingress during rain.
• The floor drain J pipe in the kitchen appears to be cracked and allows sewer gas to enter into the kitchen.
• The concession building concrete slab on grade had settled over five inches.
• The football field surface is inadequately sloped and ineffective. It appears to be built on an unstable and saturated clay. There are numerous sunken spots that continue to settle even though the holes are filled in seasonally. There is standing water along both sides of the field.
• The softball field’s grass outfield displays the same condition as the adjacent football field.
• The baseball field’s grass outfield appears to have inadequate slope to drain snow melt and rain fall.
• All exterior exit door concrete stoops continue to heave in the winter, binding the bottom of the doors and resulting in a partial opening of the doors.
Yet after reviewing the reports for North Woods and South Ridge in this most recent meeting, Engebritson was quick to point out additional issues with wastewater and the school water towers. While district officials and board members alike have identified a large number of deficiencies over the years, it was clear from the discussion and materials presented that a comprehensive, all-inclusive descriptive list of the problems as they are today doesn’t exist.
Business manager Kim Johnson also pointed out at the meeting that turnover at the district has also been a hurdle in addressing these concerns. The district has had three different facilities managers over the past four years, she said.
At the root of these issues is who will foot the bill for repairing the problems at both schools. Engebritson said that the contractors and subcontractors should bear a large share of the responsibility, and she hopes that hiring an attorney who is a specialist in building construction issues will give the district a leg up in resolving these issues.
“We talked to Kraus Anderson and there’s the fingerpointing thing, and then some of the contractors are no longer inbusiness, so again, it’s gotten complicated,” Engebritson said. “They were agreeable in the beginning, but nobody’s taking responsibility.”
Engebritson will report on the status of retaining an attorney at an upcoming board meeting.