Wichita School District sues four firms over work done at Hamilton Middle School

Shoddy work on Hamilton Middle School during a 2000 bond project put the school in danger of collapsing, and "numerous lives were put at risk for a long period of time," according to the lawsuit Wichita schools filed against four architecture and construction firms last week.

The district is seeking the cost of repairs to the school, which is roughly $2 million, said attorney Richard James of McDonald Tinker, Skaer, Quinn and Herrington, the firm the district hired to handle the lawsuit.

The $7.5 million renovation and addition to Hamilton, which was finished in 2004, rendered the school structurally unsound and violated city codes and national construction standards, the lawsuit claims.

Students and staff used those parts of the building until December 2008, when gaps in door frames and bulletin boards popping off walls led to further investigation of the building's structure, located at 1407 S. Broadway.

After one year of repairs, all Hamilton students returned to the building in January. Some students studied at the nearby and vacant Longfellow Elementary School building during the repairs.

School district leaders said they usually try to settle construction cases out of court, but one firm didn't participate in a February 2009 meeting for mediation, leading them to file a lawsuit to be reimbursed for the repairs.

The district is still open to settling the case through mediation, James said.

The firms being sued are: general architect McCluggage Van Sickle and Perry, which recently merged with Gossen-Livingston Architects to form GLMV; Professional Engineering Consultants; general contractor E.W. Johnson; and subcontractor R&C Professional Services.

PEC president and CEO Rod Young said the engineering consulting firm wanted to go through the mediation process with the district, but their insurance company representative requested more time to review the case before sitting down with Wichita school officials.

"We stand by our work and want to help the school district resolve its concerns through cooperative effort," Young said in a statement.

The school district blames the structural problems on the placement of holes in the walls to install air conditioning ducts in the original part of the school, built in 1918.

Also, the replacement of wood floors with a cement fill on the second and third floors added weight for the weakened walls to hold up, the lawsuit claims.

The third floor partially collapsed in the summer of 2008, immediately closing affected classrooms.

Repair workers had to shore up portions of the building to keep it from falling on them during construction, the district states.

The mechanical subcontractor told the general contractor where to place the holes for air-conditioning ducts, said Robert Francis, president of the mechanical subcontractor, R&C Professional Services.

But Francis said his workers didn't cut the holes, and the firm's contract with E.W. Johnson, which acted as the general contractor, excluded them from liability for the duct holes. The general contractor also changed the location of some of the holes, Francis said.

"The school district somehow drug us in here," he said, adding his firm showed up to mediation meetings and is working to get the company dismissed from the lawsuit.

R&C Professionals is the only defendant not mentioned by name in the part of the lawsuit asking for damages. But the lawsuit claims all four defendants didn't work in a professional manner and were negligent.

General contractor E.W. Johnson's president, Steve Johnson, and general architect Jeff Van Sickle couldn't be reached for comment on Wednesday.

"It is our position that the construction team as a whole did not appropriately repair the building during the last bond issue," James, the Wichita lawyer representing the school district, said in an e-mail Wednesday.

Each defendant should pay for damages caused by their own work, which will be fully investigated as the lawsuit goes forward, he said.

Defendants have 20 days to answer the district's lawsuit, but the time could be extended by the judge.

Contractor E.W. Johnson received more than $40 million of the $284.5 million in bond projects approved in 2000.

Architecture firm McCluggage Van Sickle and Perry received projects costing $26 million in the 2000 bond plan.

GLMV — the firm McCluggage Van Sickle and Perry merged into — is the architect on the two new K-8 schools that are part of the $370 million bond issue passed in 2008.