Century's design still draws hard feelings School district, architect at odds
By Joshua Lynsen
The civil lawsuit filed by the architectural firm that designed Century High School is the latest salvo in a long dispute between the firm and the Rochester school district.
Paul Bourgeois, the district's chief financial officer, has been among the most vocal critics of the work by Twin Cities firm Hammel, Green and Abrahamson Inc. In February, as the Rochester school board considered new spending to improve the school, Bourgeois said the district wasn't happy with how the $33.3 million project was completed in 1997. He alleged that cutbacks had to be made in the building project in part because the firm's design for Century was 12,000 square feet larger than was contracted for.
But Bourgeois isn't the only district official who has criticized Century's design. Last year, the district sought damages and a refund of architectural fees for HGA's work on the project.
The district entered into arbitration with HGA in April 2002. A summary of the district's argument said the refund was sought because the firm had breached its contract and was negligent.
Attorneys for the district focused on how HGA had agreed the building and site development construction budget was $26.1 million. But the project's final cost was $7.2 million higher.
The district argued in arbitration that when HGA said it was designing according to budget and assured the district Century was on budget, the firm agreed it was working on a fixed budget contract. The district said the firm breached that contract when Century went over budget.
But arbitrator Robert Bowen said HGA was clear in its contract with the district that it could not be held liable for any cost overruns. The assurances, he said, did not alter that agreement.
The district also argued HGA was professionally negligent by providing a particularly low estimate for one portion of the project. District attorneys said that error gave the district an estimate that was $2 million shy of the actual cost.
However, Bowen said HGA "used its best professional judgment" in estimating the project's costs.
"In the end," he said, the district "was able to complete the project with the funds available to it and received a building with which it was well-satisfied."
Bowen dismissed all arguments brought against HGA.
That seemed to resolve the matter, until Bourgeois criticized the firm's work on the Century project in a story published Feb. 8 in the Post-Bulletin. His comments were made in connection with a school board discussion of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for improvements at the school.
Hal Henderson, a firm principal in HGA's Rochester office, said Monday that the decision to sue the school district and two of its top officials was not made lightly.
"It is unfortunate HGA has been placed in this position," he said. "Only after careful consideration, this defamation action was brought to protect our professional reputation."
School board chairwoman Cris Fischer said in a statement issued Monday that the district now must spend money to defend itself in Hennepin District Court, where the lawsuit was filed.
"We are extremely disappointed that HGA has chosen to take this action," she said in the statement. "It is highly unfortunate that a claim like this would be issued when the final result would not appear to benefit either party."