Disputes mar end of school project

Towson High work wraps up, but blame for snags continues

September 06, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Three years after Baltimore County school officials launched an ambitious plan to renovate Towson High School, the project is about to wrap up, but not without serious snags, including pending lawsuits with two contractors who say school officials served as poor managers.

"This was an ill-fated project from Day Two," said Christopher S. Underhill, an attorney who represents Wohlsen/McLaughlin, a Pennsylvania firm hired by the school board in 1996 to act as construction manager. "Some projects, like some cars, are lemons and they just don't go well. This is one of them."

Towson High School shines today and bustles with students, but the renovation took a year longer than expected. Court documents and interviews with contractors point to poor coordination, communication and trouble-shooting as reasons for the $16 million renovation's slow progress.

"At times, I felt frustrated with the coordination," said David Cobb, president of Alliance Roofing of Baltimore, which reroofed the high school. "Our guys would put a roof on, and then the mason would come and put holes in our roof and cause leaks. Who's responsible? The work scope was unclear."

If the school system loses the legal battles, costs associated with the Towson High renovation could increase by about $5 million, the total in construction costs, lost wages and attorney fees outlined in lawsuits by Wohlsen/McLaughlin and BCI Contractors of Baltimore.

School officials, including school board members and facilities department staff, and county attorneys, repeatedly have declined to comment on the project, at times giving as a reason a possible legal settlement with contractors. Sources say a settlement could be completed any day.

Costs so far for the Towson High renovation, including attorney fees related to the two lawsuits, have yet to be released by school officials despite a written request by The Sun.

"Until the lawsuits are settled, I really can't say anything," said Donald L. Arnold, school board president.

The project started the same year as evidence surfaced that the school system's facilities department, which oversees school repairs and construction, was being mismanaged. An internal audit detailed poor decision-making, a disregard for procurement laws and procedures, and miscalculations that caused some projects to run over budget.

Recently, Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione has sought to stabilize the department in preparation for a $530 million school repair and construction plan, which officials kicked off last year. School board members could hire a facilities department director at a meeting tomorrow, filling a position that has been open several months.

Sparkling school

Despite construction delays and legal problems, Towson High sparkles today. The gymnasium sports new bleachers. The band room's acoustics are near-perfect. And the cafeteria's food court draws rave reviews from students.

Except for some lighting work on the auditorium stage, a few doors that need windows and scattered holes that need to be filled in the terrazzo flooring, the renovation is finished, Principal Gwendolyn R. Grant said.

"They really like it," Grant said of the returning students. "They love the gymnasium. They love the cafeteria; they think it is really pretty."

A celebration marking the end of the renovation at Towson High, which was built in 1948, is planned for Sept. 25. Eager for a glimpse of their modernized campus, alumni who live in the area are stopping by for casual tours. "Before, this place was just very dark and gloomy," Grant said.

Difficulties

At times during the three years of renovation, students were forced to eat their lunches outside under peach-colored awnings. They had to use an outdoor stairway to get to the library, and the band held concerts in borrowed auditoriums.

"The project shouldn't have been done with the kids in the building," said Donnie Saine, Towson High's past PTA president. "They had to constantly move the kids to close off some area or another for work. It got old."

Contractors who worked the job grew tired of construction hassles, too.

One problem, they say, was that school officials hired several contractors -- roofers, plumbers and electricians -- to do the work. Wohlsen/McLaughlin was contracted to coordinate them but ran into problems, too.

"There was a certain amount of infighting and disagreement between contractors," said Underhill, the attorney for Wohlsen/McLaughlin, which is seeking a court judgment against the school system worth $728,827. "Basically, the project just broke down."

Poor communication also caused trouble, said Cobb, the Alliance Roofing president.

"There were days when there would be plumbers scheduled to do this and air-conditioning people scheduled to do this, and things just got clouded," he said.

Court documents filed by Wohlsen/McLaughlin and BCI place some of the blame for the project's delays on school board members, who are alleged to have failed to support contractors' management decisions, unfairly terminated contracts with them and failed to provide them full payment.

In its lawsuit, BCI says that school board members breached their contract with the firm by failing to coordinate the work of all main contractors, failing to respond to design issues within a reasonable time, and failing to approve and pay BCI for changed work. BCI is seeking a court judgment against school officials worth $4 million.

"The onus [for the delay] rests with a lot of people," said Wohlsen/McLaughlin attorney Underhill. "Some blame lies with the various trade contractors and some lies with the school board. Each [firm] feels that the battle is primarily with the school board."

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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