by Chad Halcom – Staff Writer, Macomb Daily
July 19, 2002
Romeo Community Schools may be close to making peace with one contractor and fighting another more aggressively in lawsuits over alleged mold contamination at Washington Elementary School.
This week, attorneys met and agreed to delay a settlement conference between the district and Wonder Makers Environmental Inc., a Kalamazoo-based air quality and environmental testing firm, along with several other parties named in that case. But in a separate lawsuit, the district has a proposed settlement with Statewide Disaster Restoration Inc. to mull over at its next school board meeting Monday night. If the board approves, that case may be settled and officially dismissed next week. "They (the board) still have to have a public meeting, and make comments and vote on it, before anything can happen," explained Michael Hartmann, an attorney for the school district in the Statewide lawsuit. "There’s nothing committing us yet to accept this (proposal) yet, on the record in court," he added.
Statewide, a remediation contracting firm hired to clean up mold and other potential toxins allegedly uncovered by Wonder Makers, is suing Romeo schools for $522,600 plus costs and attorney fees. The dispute turns on a school cleanup contract, awarded in August and completed in October, that grew in scope and in price as it went along through Washington Elementary School. Workers reported finding toxic mold last summer after a routine job to replace ceiling tiles in the school. The board voted in August to close the school for cleanup purposes, and farmed out students to other elementaries and part of Romeo High School for most of the past school year. Frederick Elias, an attorney for Statewide’s lawsuit, said he was not sure when the board vote would happen or when the case would return to court. He declined to comment on the proposal. "Later I should be able to discuss a bit more about it," he said.
Meanwhile, the court battle seems to be escalating with Wonder Makers, the testing firm that inspected Washington Elementary and is now seeking damages above $115,000 from the district and other defendants. Both firms claim the district hasn’t fully paid them. But Romeo schools has now countersued Wonder Makers, claiming the firm used the perceived problem and inaccurate data to lure the board into extensive and costly contracts. "The remediation measures recommended by Wonder Makers were unnecessary, and of no value to the Washington Elementary School or its occupants," court documents state. Elias Muawad, co-counsel for Wonder Makers, said the firm might be close to resolving disputes with the other contractors and individuals, but its position with Romeo schools is firm.
"We deny the allegations. The report by Wonder Makers was correct and accurate according to all environmental regulations," he said. "And Dr. (Michael) Pinto (Wonder Makers’ CEO) made a proper recommendation." The alleged contamination — black mold was among the suspected toxic materials found there — displaced the entire staff and student body at Washington. The first 265 or so students from grades 3-5 were back in the school building by January, and the entire Washington student body was back by April. Officials and documents indicate Statewide began by quoting an estimate to the school board, but ended with a larger job and higher price tag. The Wonder Makers case returns to court in September.
Attorney Norman Yattouma, lead counsel in that case, could not be reached for comment this week.