Settlement nearing in case
By Heather Kulterman, Independent Staff Writer
A settlement in the ongoing lawsuit over mold found in the walls of Buchanan High School may still be weeks — possibly months — away, but Clovis Unified officials are preparing to make several millions of dollars in repairs once the case is resolved.
Spanning nearly six years, the lawsuit between the district and L.C. Nelson and Sons Inc. — the Selma-based contracting firm that built the school — has been near resolution since July.
"It is still going back and forth. We don’t know when it will all be resolved," said Dwight Nelson, owner of the general contracting company, who declined to comment further on the case.
Roger Oraze, CUSD assistant superintendent of facilities, said that disagreement over language in the proposed settlement, and the large number of parties involved in the suit have contributed to the delay.
The district is pursuing full restitution from the contractor to make repairs to the school; the contractor has argued that it was not construction but district-approved designs that resulted in leaks, and ultimately mold.
Lawyers for Nelson and the district could not be reached for comment.
The Clovis Unified Governing Board got a prelimary look at a plan to repair the school at its Oct. 10 board meeting. The plans include skipping normal bidding procedures in order to expedite the process. The board chose to withhold approval until a settlement is reached.
"The board’s position, and rightly so, is that all the ‘i’s be dotted and the ‘t’s crossed before they’ll grant approval," Oraze said.
The plan must also be approved by the Pete Mehas, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools.
Typically, the district would send out requests to various contractors for bids on the project and then select a few to present to the board for a vote.
The repairs will most likely take between 12 and 15 months to complete, Oraze said, since the health and safety of students and staff could be at risk if precautions are not taken.
Since all three types of mold found at the school — Stachybotrys, Alternia and Chaetomium — have been known to cause health problems, the district has been extra cautious in proceeding.
The campus conducts air-quality testing and monitors the health of staff and students through screenings by a physician on a regular basis.
When the mold was initially found, it was determined by a health professional that it did not pose a health threat to faculty and students since it was encapsulated between exterior and interior walls.
To make sure that opening these walls for repairs does not create a hazard, the work will be done in segments. No classroom will be used while it is being repaired, Oraze said.
He said one class at a time will be evacuated and students will be sent to a portable classroom until all the repair work is completed.
The students will then be moved back in and the next classroom needing repairs will be sent to the portable room.
The district also plans to re-paint the entire school.
Just a few years after Buchanan High opened in 1993, administrators at Buchanan noticed cracked stucco, peeling paint, rusted windows and other damage brought on in rainy months by water leaks.
In the fall of 2000, a $4.9 million lawsuit against the contractor was already under way when mold was found in the walls of classrooms and the entire student body was banned from the campus for seven days.
The cost of repairs climbed to $16 million once testing, mold removal and subsequent building repair expenses were added.
Both sides have claimed victory throughout the lawsuit.
Oraze said that once the lawyers have agreed on the language issues of a settlement, the case will go before a judge for final approval.
Earlier in the year, the judge presiding over the case called upon a special master — a mediator who has the full authority of the court — to come from Burlingame and help both sides reach a settlement.