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Harford schools will settle with Youth's Benefit Elementary subcontractor for $500,000

Harford County Public Schools will settle for $500,000 with a construction firm that worked on the multi-phase, $37.1 million project to build a new Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.

The Harford County Council approved, by unanimous vote, Tuesday a request from school system officials to transfer $485,000. The money comes from funds available in the ongoing HCPS project to renovate the HVAC system and enclose open classrooms at Bel Air Elementary School. The funds will be transferred into the Youth’s Benefit Elementary capital project account.

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The subcontractor, Rommel Construction, filed a claim against the school system, alleging “some inefficiencies” because of the need to redesign the roof during construction and “due to a change in the construction schedule,” Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, told council members.

The Board of Education approved the transfer of funds during its Jan. 22 meeting, said Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services. The County Council must also approve such transfers.

Construction on the new Youth’s Benefit started with a groundbreaking ceremony in October 2014. The three-phase project was designed to bring more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, who had been in separate buildings dating to the 1950s and 1970s, under one roof.

One half of the new building, for kindergarten through second grade, opened in time for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Officials planned to open the second half for the intermediate grades by the start of the 2017-2018 school year, but that was delayed to November 2017.

That delay came about because of issues related to the installation of foundations and concrete slabs, which then had a domino effect, delaying all other contractors building upon those foundations, school officials said at the time.

The project also called for the demolition of the former primary and intermediate grades’ buildings, as well as a bus loop and parking areas for the new building. That nearly 150,000-square-foot building was dedicated in April 2018.

Rommel Construction filed an initial claim for more than $1.4 million, which school officials declined. The company then filed its claim in court.

The two parties were able to get the figure down to about $800,000, but “that, we thought, was still not due to them so we continued in our discussions,” Brown said.

The school board, after discussing the matter with HCPS officials, gave them the authority to continue negotiating with the company.

“We ended up successfully negotiating a settlement in the amount of $500,000, which we felt was fair and reasonable given the three-phase construction project,” Brown told council members.

School system officials sought to negotiate a settlement, as they felt some compensation was due to Rommel Construction because of delays in the intermediate grades’ section of the new building. Plus, they did not want to risk going to court, incurring an estimated $200,000 to $250,000 in legal fees in addition to any judgement levied, according to Brown.

“It becomes a little bit more of a business decision than absolute right and wrong,” added Chris Morton, supervisor of facilities management.

Brown said the Bel Air Elementary School project is nearing completion; he noted that “we very successfully received favorable bids” for that project, meaning there is enough money still available to where the school system can settle with its Youth’s Benefit subcontractor.

“I just assume this is in the best interest of Harford County Public Schools to move forward?” Council President Patrick Vincenti asked.

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“Yes, that is correct,” Brown responded.

District E Councilman Robert Wagner also weighed in, asking Brown: “you’ve taken steps to make sure that this doesn’t occur again, I take it?”

Brown replied again in the affirmative.

Morton told the council he and his colleagues were not trying to make excuses, but he noted the Youth’s Benefit replacement was a “three-and-a-half-year, multiple-phased” project, which he said was “probably the most complex project that we’ve managed” since school modernization happened in the North Harford area.

North Harford High School in Pylesville underwent an extensive modernization in 2007, according to the HCPS website.

Morton said, in response to a question from council Vice President Joe Woods, that officials have no concerns about the Youth’s Benefit roof, that it was “constructed properly.”

“We actually ended up with a better system at a little less cost,” he said of the redesign.

The council voted unanimously in favor of the school system’s transfer request. The members voted, again, all in favor of a resolution to codify the adjustments in the HCPS capital budget for the current fiscal year.

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