ERO International LLP, the architectural firm originally hired to design the multi-million dollar Mission High School renovation project is suing the Mission Consolidated Independent School District for more than a quarter million dollars for fees the firm alleges were not paid for services rendered before the district terminated its contract. A Hidalgo County judge has given the two parties until Aug. 13 to meet to mediate the issue.
ERO’s founder, Eli R. Ochoa, heads the same firm that designed the McAllen Performing Arts Center. The firm’s attorney said Monday the school district is being uncooperative in its attempts to settle the matter through mediation as provided in the contract.
In a breach of contract lawsuit filed May 8 in Hidalgo County Court at Law by McAllen attorney Ric Godinez, ERO is seeking $284,465 it alleges the school district failed to pay the firm after it was hired to design what was originally budgeted as an $18.3 million Phase III renovation project. In the lawsuit Godinez asserts the school district terminated the firm’s contract after alleging the firm failed to provide construction designs that came within budget but breached its contract by not paying the firm for work it had performed up until the contract was terminated. According to school district records prepared by Assistant Superintendent for Operations Rick Rivera for presentation to the district’s board of trustees at a June 7, 2017 Facilities / Environment Committee meeting, the project’s budget has since grown to $33.2 million partly due to additions to the original scope of the project.
According to the lawsuit and school district records, the district hired ERO in in June 2010 to provide an assessment and “bid-modeling” of existing buildings for renovations at the high school. Based on the district’s stated needs and after several months, ERO completed its work in 2011 and provided a total estimate of $23.8 million for the project with funding coming from $59 million in bonds voters approved in 2008, according to the lawsuit and the background report prepared for school board trustees by Rivera. According to the report, the Mission High School renovation project was the largest allocation of any project the bonds were intended to finance. At the time, the district decided against proceeding further with the project.
In 2013 the district again issued requests for qualifications for the project and again ERO was chosen to “provide design and construction contract professional services” for the school renovations. According to the lawsuit, over the next 13 months ERO provided various designs and cost estimates.
“Based on the district’s programming requests and rising construction costs ERO consistently advised MCISD staff and the board of trustees initial cost estimates would exceed the original $18 million budgeted,” the lawsuit states. “On May 6, 2014 ERO again warned MCISD the anticipated probable cost of construction for the programming and scope of work requested by MCISD was approximately $33,218,” the lawsuit states. “MCISD unilaterally breached the contract by terminating ERO on Aug. 16, 2014.”
According to Rivera’s background report, the school district terminated ERO’s contract “due to dissatisfaction with the design work, specifically, but without limitation due to the design consistently failed to adhere to the specified budget.”
The Progress Times reported in Aug. 2014 the clash between ERO and the MCISD board of trustees began in 2013 when the firm billed the school district $634,000 for a baseline study of the high school campus the board said it did not authorize and confusion arose over whether district staff had authorized the study.
The board subsequently awarded the design contract to PBK Architects of McAllen and the construction contract to E-Con Group construction company and eventually approved an overall $33.2 million renovation project, according to the lawsuit and Rivera’s report to trustees.
However, it’s possible the scope of the project as finally approved by the district included items not in the ERO proposal, according to a review of the project’s history as compiled by Rivera.
Godinez said Monday the school district had every right to terminate its contract with ERO, but according to the contract the school district was required to pay the firm for services rendered.
“The overall lead to me is the school board’s failing to meet its obligations and has not given a good reason why,” Godinez said, adding he is seeking to depose school district officials to find out why ERO was fired.
School attorney David P. Hansen filed a response to the lawsuit asserting the school district enjoys governmental immunity from the plaintiff’s stated claims and therefore the court lacks jurisdiction, and because the plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
Hansen argued his point during a June 29 hearing before Judge Albert Garcia. Garcia said he would consider the argument the court lacks jurisdiction and make a later ruling. In the meantime he ordered the two parties to meet in mediation before 5 p.m. on Aug. 13. He also ordered that at least one principal of the plaintiff and one elected trustee attend the mediation.
Godinez said the school district’s Austin-based law firm, Eichelbaum, Wardell, Hansen, Powell & Mehl has dragged its feet scheduling mediation as called for in the contract. He said one point of contention was the judge’s order at least one member of the district’s board of trustees attend.
MCISD spokesman, Craig Verley, said the school district could not comment on pending litigation.