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School district completes investigation regarding high school mechanical system

Submitted by the River Falls School District

The school district has concluded significant repairs to the high school heating/ventilation/air condition system, under budget and on time for the 2017-18 school year. Extensive measures were taken during repairs to monitor that the project was done correctly. Furthermore, any future facility improvement projects will be held to the same high standards of accountability to ensure similar problems never arise.

Due to the extensive nature of the pipe leaks and the $2.7 million cost of repairs, the board retained a law firm to analyze and evaluate the pipe condition and provide recommendations to the board on the district's legal rights to pursue reimbursement of the repair costs from the parties responsible for the piping issue. The investigation included the following activities:

• Interviewing all interested parties — including the original architect, the engineer, the district's owner's representative, original contractors, and available witnesses

• Reviewing the opinions of the district's forensic experts investigating the cause of the leaks

• Examining the project files of the original architect, the district, permitting authorities, and other available materials, including potentially available insurance

• Analysis of Wisconsin law regarding construction and design defect issues

After comprehensive study of the issues, and receipt of the law firm's recommendations, the board determined that pursuing legal action was not a viable or cost-effective option. The primary impediment is based on the expiration of the statute of limitations applicable to potential legal claims due to the passage of significant time since the high school was originally constructed in 2002.

"As a board, we felt compelled to investigate potential sources of reimbursement to the district for the pipe replacement project. We owed that process to our taxpayers and we are frustrated to learn of these legal limitations. The board assembled an experienced team of forensic scientists, engineers and attorneys to review potential recovery options, and also reviewed potentially available insurance coverages. Unfortunately, the investigation revealed the original work was too old to realistically expect any recovery, and we decided to follow the recommendation of legal counsel to close the investigation, and focus our resources on other district priorities. We are pleased with the completion of the replacement project, and are confident it has fixed the issue. The community can expect that moving forward, we will take measures to ensure similar problems never occur with future building projects," Stacy Johnson Myers, president of the school board, said.

Superintendent Jamie Benson, commenting on the investigation, said, "Our high school is the premier building in the district, by size and overall use. Our investigation into the cause was exhaustive, and while extremely disappointed that we won't be able to recoup the repair costs, we're pleased to have completed this repair on time, and under budget, and return the high school to the full use of our community of learners."

During fall 2016, over 200 leaks throughout the HVAC system occurred, along with resulting problems to certain HVAC equipment connected to the piping. The district was able to contain all of the leaks, with little damage to adjacent property. At no time did this condition create any health-related concerns for students or staff.

The school board promptly consulted with the original architects and engineers who designed the high school in 2000, a mechanical contractor on the original construction, as well as independent forensic engineers and newly retained design professionals. These efforts defined the source and cause of the leaks, and discovered that the incorrect type of piping was installed in a large portion of the HVAC system, which corroded over time, and began to leak. The repair project involved replacing the incorrect piping with the correct style of pipe in the summer of 2017, as well as related HVAC equipment damaged by the pipe corrosion.

In order to finance this project, the board deferred some future district-wide maintenance projects and other one-time financial decisions. Also, due to conservative financial management, we were able to utilize a portion of the district's rainy-day fund to avoid budgetary cuts to educational programs.