By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The mold infestation that shut the Guilmette School for most of the 2010-11 school year was caused by moisture collecting on frigid air conditioning pipes that were improperly insulated against the summer heat, a lawyer hired to recover the cost of the cleanup told city councilors last night.
The report on the cause of the infestation came as city Budget Director Mark Ianello told the councilors that as much as $3 million more may be needed to pay for rebuilding the interior of the elementary and middle school following the interior demolition needed to get at the mold.
Already, the city and school district have spent or dedicated $4 million to rip out and replace blackened wallboard, insulation and ceiling tiles, to scrub down desks and other furnishings and to relocate the school’s 1,100 students and staff during the six-month cleanup. Much of the reconstruction included temporary patches that allowed the school to reopen in April 2011, so the next round of repairs will include ripping out the quick fixes so that permanent fixes can be installed.
Those fixes include tuning up the air conditioning system, which has been shut down for three years.
“Our fear is if the air conditioning system isn’t properly (repaired), this could happen again,” Jack McDonnell, the lawyer attempting to recover the cost of the cleanup from the contractor who built the school and its insurance company, told the council last night.
Other work still to be done includes replacing fire- and water-proofing materials, insulation, caulking and floor and ceiling tiles.
The work was initially expected to cost just $500,000, in part because the city hoped to use public works crews to do much of the reconstruction. Acting Public Works Director John Isensee told the council his department wasn’t up to the job because years of budget cuts have badly depleted its staff.
The City Council’s budget committee voted 4-0 to send Ianello’s request to borrow the added $3 million to the full council without a recommendation, then scheduled a tour of the Guilmette School for noon today.
Ianello said he hoped to put the project out to bid next month, allowing work to begin when the school year ends in June. He said he is hopeful the work will cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, but said he is asking for permission to borrow $3 million in case his estimates are off.
The school district so far has paid or set aside $3 million to cover its share of the cost, including $1.9 million owed to the ServPro franchises that worked on the environmental cleanup until they were thrown off the job, and the $117,000 cost of renting Our Lady of Good Council School from the Archdiocese of Boston to house some of the Guilmette students relocated during the cleanup.
Deputy School Superintendent Marylou Bergeron told the City Council last night that the school district so far has refused to pay the ServPro bills because of “some issues that had arisen,” but did not elaborate.
The city so far has spent $581,000 on the project, including $360,000 to the Hinkley Allen Snyder law firm, which the city replaced after determining that its $500-an-hour bills were unaffordable.
McDonnell, the lawyer who took over the case, told the council he has filed suits in Superior Court to recover the full cost of the work against Peabody Construction, the general contractor that built the Guilmette School about a decade ago, and Travelers’ Insurance, which insured the work.
McDonnell said the claim will focus on the air-conditioning system, which he caused the mold infestation because its pipes weren’t insulated and because its “control system was not dialed into the mechanicals.”
McDonnell and City Attorney Charles Boddy deflected a question from Budget Committee Chairman Daniel Rivera about how much the city and school district are likely to recover. Boddy said the issue should be discussed behind closed doors because “it involves an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our case.”
Councilor Roger Twomey posed a wider question the two lawyers.
“Have we learned from any of this?” Twomey asked. “Could any of this have been avoided?”
McDonnell noted that Peabody Construction, the general contractor, was the low-bidder on the Guilmette project when the school was built. He also noted that the city hired Peabody even though at the time it was suing it for other public projects it had done in Lawrence. The company went out of business after the Guilmette project, but has since reincorporated, allowing the city to sue it.
“We’re looking at contracts and bidding documents much more closely,” Boddy added. “It’s been an eye-opening experience on the city side. We’re working to have something like this never happen again. We rely on our experts. When they let us down, we suffer the consequences.”