EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 10, 2013

Lots more work needed at Guilmette School

City seeks $3M more to finish job required by mold cleanup

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua is seeking to borrow $3 million to finish refurbishing the Guilmette School which was found to be infested with mold in 2010.

The amount is six times the original $500,000 estimated cost of the project, which has become entangled in lawsuits and counterclaims, and would add to the millions already billed to eradicate the mold and rebuild the school’s interior.

Already the city has spent $531,000 on lawyers, architects and engineers — including the $500-an-hour fees a Boston law firm was billing the city. The city still owes up to $1.9 million more to the five environmental cleanup contractors who scoured Guilmette’s air ducts, ripped out soggy wallboards and sanitized hundreds of desks and other furniture.

The school district has shared in the cost of the work. Chris Markuns, a spokesman for state-appointed Superintendent/Receiver Jeff Riley, did not respond to a request for information about what the district has spent so far and whether it will contribute to the cost of the work still needed.

The news that so much remains to be done was a setback last week for a city still struggling to regain its financial footing. Also last week, federal officials announced that a $6.6 million grant that allowed the city to hire up to 38 firefirefights for two years will not be renewed when it runs out in August.

The Guilmette was closed from October 2010 to April 2011 while the mold was eradicated and the interior was patched up sufficiently to allow its 1,300 elementary and middle school students and staff to return from other schools around the city where they were relocated while the work was underway.

As the school reopened, Marylou Bergeron, who was then acting school superintendent, said custodians would do much of the remaining reconstruction over the summer of 2011 and that the work would cost about $500,000.

Last week — 18 months after the work was scheduled to be completed — city Budget Director Mark Ianello sent the City Council a three-sentence memo asking for permission to borrow $3 million for what he described only as “extraordinary repairs” needed to fix “several deficiencies with the building.”

He did not elaborate and referred questions to Mayor Lantigua, who did not return a phone call for comment.

A spreadsheet provided by Robert Nunes, the state-appointed fiscal overseer who has veto power over city spending, indicates that the remaining work includes caulking windows, painting, repairing concrete paving and installing ceiling tiles, piping and insulation.

The City Council last week sent the request to borrow the $3 million for the repairs to its budget committee, whose chairman said he will ask Ianello, City Attorney Charles Boddy and representatives of the school district to explain the expense to the committee on Tuesday.

The chairman, Daniel Rivera, said he was surprised by the request for the added money.

“I thought they were fixing it last summer,” said Rivera. “We have kids in there. I thought they had fixed the problem.”

Rivera suggested that the disclosure that so much work remains at the Guilmette School and the loss of the $6.6 million federal firefighting grant would be issues in the upcoming mayoral campaign, when he will seek to unseat Lantigua.

“People act like we’re out of the woods — heralding a surplus,” he said, referring to the $6.6 million surplus the city accumulated in its last fiscal year. He said he would favor using $5 million or so that remains of the surplus to pay for the fixes still needed at the Guilmette School, rather than borrowing the money.

Nunes, the fiscal overseer, said the city will seek to recover the added $3 million cost of rebuilding the interior of the Guilmette School from the contractors who built the school about a dozen years ago and from the surety and insurance companies who guaranteed the construction and insured the school. The city is alleging that the mold infestation — which was the second in the school’s short history — was due to faulty construction.

The city also is seeking to recover what it already has spent to eradicate the mold and rebuild the school’s interior. Boddy, the city attorney, did not return a phone call seeking to learn the status of the claims.

Although the city has paid the lawyers, engineers and architects involved in the work, it has paid none of the five environmental cleanup companies who sent crews into the school. In all, the companies say they’re owed as much as $1.9 million.

All five of the companies were Servpro franchises, including at least three that were led by Servpro of Lawrence, the general contractor. Michael Morris, a lawyer representing the Lawrence franchise, said the company has not been paid because of “a complex legal issue,” but would not elaborate.

He said he is hopeful the city will write a check shortly, which he said will allow Servpro of Lawrence to pay the subcontractors.

“We’ve been talking to the city, the lawyers for the city,” Morris said. “It’s a very complex story. Servpro Lawrence did a wonderful job. They did everything correctly.”

The cleanup stumbled several times, including when it was disclosed that most of the workers on the Servpro crews were temporary, unskilled, non-union employees being paid less than the prevailing wage, prompting protests from local labor leaders and warnings from state labor officials.

At least two of the employees were arrested for stealing computers, cash and other material from the classrooms they were cleaning. The environmental hygienist overseeing the work was fired after union leaders pointed out that her husband owned one of the Servpro franchises.

Guilmette was initially expected to close for only a week or so, but the shutdown stretched from October 2010 to April 2011.