Building concerns leave school board frustrated with construction company

By Matt Bunke, Community Editor

Frustration among the Watertown-Mayer school board continued to build last week regarding an ongoing dispute with Knutson Construction, the construction manager hired by the district in 2006 and 2007 to oversee the completion of the new elementary school and additions to the high school.

The dispute centers on several key problems, including failing boilers at the high school that the school board voted to replace last week at a cost of $160,000. The board also believes Knutson is responsible for moisture in the elementary school walls and alleged errors made in regards to the water flow heating and cooling system at the elementary school that superintendent Dave Marlette said has clogged pipes and equipment.

Marlette provided the board with an update on the ongoing dispute during its June 27 meeting, when the board discussed its options regarding how to proceed with the situation. The school board’s position is that Knutson – the general overseer of the project – is ultimately to blame for the issues, has been uncooperative in addressing problems that it has been aware of for years, and in some cases, according to Marlette, has covered up shortcuts that were taken and errors that were made along the way.

The board ultimately decided to set up a meeting with Knutson executives during the next regularly scheduled board meeting on July 17, and intends to continue its effort to recoup costs for the failing boilers.

"It’s time this district needs to make a decision on how to move forward," Marlette said. "We have done everything in our power to get them to step up to the plate."

One of the most significant problems has been the high school boilers. Marlette said only two of three were operational this year, and that they frequently went down and shut off. He further went on to accuse Knutson of being aware that the boilers were not the proper ones for the system when the company recommended to the school board that they be installed.

Marlette said KFI Engineering, the designer of the heating system, twice sent letters to Knutson rejecting the proposed boilers that were eventually installed, letters Marlette says Knutson chose to ignore and never revealed to the school board.

"If our district had the knowledge (KFI) rejected those, we would have said ‘heck no, we won’t take those,’" Marlette said. "It’s common sense. We had just put Fulton boilers in our elementary designed by KFI, and they work like a charm."

The school board voted Wednesday to have Fulton boilers also installed at the high school to replace the failing boilers. The new boilers will cost $160,000, and ultimately will provide a better indication as to the nature of the problem. If the new boilers work properly, it likely indicates that the original boilers were not right for the system. If the new boilers also fail, it would seem to indicate that KFI’s system is faulty. Marlette said KFI is standing by its work and said the company has indicated it will address the problem if the system is shown to be at fault, but Marlette said during the meeting that he doesn’t believe the system is the problem.

The district also contends that Knutson should be responsible for moisture problems in the walls at the elementary school. For years, the cause of the moisture was a mystery, but Marlette said the district recently discovered that a rubber membrane that is supposed to go all the way to the edge of parapet – or the barrier along the edge of the roof – doesn’t adequately reach the edge, thus allowing water to blow in underneath and seep into the exterior walls.

Once again, Marlette said Knutson knew of the issue at the time of construction, but ignored it. Marlette said there are e-mails that show that the roofing company made Knutson aware of the problem, but that Knutson told the roofers to proceed anyway.

Finally, Marlette indicated that the when the water flow heating/cooling condensing units were started up at the elementary school, the contractor put regular water through the system, when it should have been clean, distilled water. As a result, Marlette said the regular water that was used "gummed up" the system and the pipes, and has clogged up other equipment that he says will burn out as a result. Marlette said he doesn’t believe Knutson was aware that the contractor was going to use regular water, but that Knutson should have required the contractor to fix the problem right away.

Marlette said the school district paid Knutson more than $2 million for its services, and that the district expected the company to fix some of these initial concerns when they were discovered. However, that hasn’t been the case, he said.

"They got their last check and they just walked away," he said. "Part of their deal is they make sure all these punch list items would be taken care of, and they’re not doing that."

The district’s position in its dispute with Knutson, however, is a bit murky because ultimately, the school board approved all the decisions that Knutson made. Under the district’s arrangement, Knutson made recommendations to the board, which the board would then approve or deny.

Marlette said often times, districts will turn plans over to a construction manager, giving them full reign to hire contractors and complete the project without school board approval along the way. That was not the case with this project. However, Marlette said that in many instances, the board was not presented with complete information by Knutson, especially in regard to the boilers, which resulted in misinformed decisions and approvals by the school board.

A message left for Knutson Construction CEO Steve Curry last week was not returned.

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