Construction company says it's not to blame for problems at schools

By Matt Bunke, Community Editor

Representatives of Knutson Construction, the construction manager that oversaw the Watertown-Mayer High School and Elementary School projects in 2006 and 2007, attended the school board meeting on Tuesday, July 17, to state their position regarding problems the school district has cited with work that was done on both buildings.

The school board has maintained that Knutson should be responsible for problems with the high school boilers and moisture in the walls at the elementary school. However, Knutson’s legal counsel told the school board on Tuesday that language in the contract between the two parties excuses the company from faulty work performed by contractors, and further denied that at least one of the problems mentioned by the school district even exists.

Reading from the contract, Marv Fabyanske, Knutson’s legal counsel, noted that "the construction manager shall not be responsible for a contractors failure to carry out the work in accordance with respective contract documents." Fabyanske further noted the company’s position that any omissions made by the individual contractors – who were ultimately hired by the school district upon recommendations by Knutson – should be the concern of that particular contractor, not of the construction manager.

"In short, if there is something wrong with the work, a defect in the work, if there’s a problem, you go to the person that did the work," Fabyanske said. "Knutson helps you with that, but they’re not responsible for the bad work. Likewise, if the design is faulty, if something is designed to do A, B and C, and it doesn’t do C, you go to the architect. You don’t go to the construction manger."

Fabyanske defended the company’s position by stating that the role of a construction manager is not to perform any of the work or do any of the building. Instead, he said, a construction manager’s role is simply to serve as an advisor throughout the project, helping to find contractors and awarding work, but is not responsible for mistakes those contractors make or faults with their designs.

"He is your consultant, advisor," Fabyanske said of the role of a construction manager. "He looks out for your best interest. That is precisely what Knutson did in all phases of the project."

The school district doesn’t seem to agree that Knutson has looked out for their best interest, at least in regards to several specific problems. The high school boilers are already failing and need to be replaced, and superintendent Dave Marlette has said he believes it is because Knutson went against the recommendation of the engineer that designed the system as to what boilers to install. Marlette indicated in late June that the engineer, KFI, twice sent letters to Knutson rejecting the boilers that were used, but Marlette said those letters were not revealed to the school board at the time.

On Tuesday, Fabyanske denied that any such rejection letters were ever sent to Knutson, saying the only letters Knutson received were several years after the fact, recommending that the boilers be replaced. Regardless of when the letters were sent, KFI did ultimately sign off on the boilers that were installed.

The other major concern that the school district believes Knutson should be responsible for is in regards to what the district says are moisture problems in the walls at the elementary school. Marlette said in June that he believes the problem stems from a rubber membrane on the roof that doesn’t extend all the way to the edge, allowing water to blow in underneath and seep into the walls.

He said the contractor alerted Knutson at the time that there was a problem, but that Knutson said to keep doing it the same way.

Fabyanske, however, denied that there is even a moisture problem in the walls to begin with.

"This one is kind of a mystery to us, because as far as we know, there is no moisture problem in the walls of the elementary school," Fabyanske said. "You have had a lot of experts looking at that not problem. Not one of them, not one, has ever told you or anyone else on the face of this earth that there is any moisture in the walls or that any moisture has come in through the side of the building. It’s never been reported and it’s never been seen. We’ve been out there, we’ve investigated, we’ve seen no evidence of moisture in those walls. We see cracking in the stucco. But stucco cracks. That’s what it does."

The school board offered very limited reaction to Knutson’s position during the meeting, but did express their belief that Knutson "walked away" from any issues or concerns once the projects were complete. Fabyanske said that was because the company has always been approached by lawyers threatening litigation regarding the problems, though several members of the school board said they don’t agree that has been the case.

The school board, which has already approved the replacement of the high school boilers at a cost of around $160,000, will continue to discuss its options regarding the issue in the coming weeks.