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District fires high school architect, responds to lawsuit

A dispute over unpaid bills has led the Farmington School Board to fire the architect that designed the new Farmington High School building and file a countersuit in response to a breach of contract complaint the architect filed last week in district court.

DLR Group, which designed the new high school and was expected to be involved in the renovation of three district schools next summer, filed the complaint last week because the district was more than 120 days late on a $600,000 payment. DLR senior principal Griff Davenport said the district had withheld payments because it felt the firm bore some responsibility for a number of change orders, or adjustments to the plan made after the project was under way.

District representatives did not comment directly on the lawsuit. Board chair Julie McKnight read a prepared statement during a brief Tuesday night meeting to approve the district's decision. She said the board had worked for the past several months to avoid litigation.

"It has been important to the district to keep this project on budget and on time," McKnight said.

The board voted unanimously on the motion.

There have been many discussions at previous board meetings about asking DLR to cover all or some of the cost of change orders as large as $300,000.

The district follows the same process with each of the requests it receives for change orders. Director of accountability services Roz Pautzke said the district would look to DLR to share responsibility for, among other things, changes related to code violations.

"We rely on the architect to know the code," Pautzke said Tuesday.

Davenport said it is clear in DLR's contract with the district that change orders are not the architect's responsibility. He said the district never offered an adequate explanation for its failure to pay its monthly bills.

"We have issued a number of communications for the school district asking, pleading for backup of their position and have yet to receive it," Davenport said.

Davenport said the relationship between DLR and the district was good early on but soured in recent months as bills piled up. Davenport and DLR had worked with superintendent Brad Meeks as far back as Meeks' time as superintendent in Aberdeen, S.D.

The major design work for the new high school was done long ago but Davenport said a project that size requires daily visits from architects and frequent minor revisions to the plan.

"You've got an extreme amount of renovation that's gotta happen at what's going to be the two middle schools," Davenport said.

The dispute between the district and DLR doesn't seem to have slowed construction yet, though. Crews are still working at the building.

"We're in full gear," Pautzke said. "There's not been a beat skipped."

How long that will continue is up for discussion. Davenport suggested the dispute could put the district at risk of missing its deadline next fall and could push the project over its budget. Superintendent Brad Meeks said the plan is still for the district to have all of its new schools -- the new FHS, two remodeled middle schools and a remodeled elementary school -- open in time for the first day of school next September. He said the district still has money left in its contingency fund.

Meeks said the district would start looking right away for a new architect to take over for DLR. He did not discuss any timeline for that process, though.

"I think we want to try to respond as soon as we can," Meeks said. "I guess we'll see when those decisions happen."

McKnight said Tuesday the district would respond within 20 days to DLR's original complaint.

Exactly where the process go from here depends on the people involved. It is still possible for the sides to reach an agreement without going to court.

Davenport said he is "very hopeful" the district and DLR will be able to work out their differences.