Cover Story


by Nathan Stubbs

Why are Lafayette Parish’s newest schools all experiencing water intrusion problems?  They don’t build them like they used to. The old adage rings very true when considering the issue that has consumed the Lafayette Parish School System’s preparation for the ’09 school year. The school system has built five schools since 1999: Ernest Gallet Elementary, Charles Burke Elementary, Live Oak Elementary, N.P. Moss Middle School and J. Wallace James Elementary. All 10 years old or younger, each has recently experienced some type of water intrusion or mold issue. Last month, crews finished mold remediation at N.P. Moss and Ernest Gallet. Over the past two years, LPSS has been forced to spend more than $2 million just to get a handle on the situation.

The schools all share recognizable similarities — colored metal roofs, prefab windows and doors and monumental front entrances — reflecting the architectural trends of the time. However, the schools do not share a common architect, engineer or contractor. And while the schools all seem to be showing similar symptoms of the same affliction, preliminary reports indicate that there are likely different root causes at work.

Just who’s responsible for the water infiltration problems remains a bone of contention and a source of consternation for many in the school system.

“I think it’s really a credibility issue on the architectural design and the construction,” says school board member Mike Hefner. Now serving his 20th year on the board, Hefner maintains the school system did its due diligence throughout the construction planning process for the new schools. “We had really gone to great lengths to try and set in a series of checks and balances to ensure that we had good facilities built for the money that was spent,” he says. “I mean, if we had accepted plans for shoddy designs or what have you, I could see [us being responsible] but shoot, all these [schools] were touted as being state of the art, the architects and engineers drawing all this up said, ‘These are going to be state-of-the-art facilities. These are going to be serving for many, many years in the school system.’ I remember that. And now, nine years later... it’s just terribly aggravating.”

Problems first got serious at N.P. Moss in 2007. After water was found leaking into two classrooms, the school system hired an outside firm to check the building for mold. The situation was deemed serious enough that Moss was shut down for the entire spring ’08 semester, displacing more than 500 students. This, along with other complaints, prompted the school district to hire the Wynn White engineering firm to perform moisture screenings in the other newer schools, all of which showed problems. According to school system records, Burke has shown signs of leaks since 2000. Some repairs were done in 2004, but problems have persisted. The school system is now working with the original architects and contractors to try to resolve the issues amicably.

Last Thursday, superintendent Burnell Lemoine, coming off a four-hour meeting on the issue, sounded optimistic that would happen. “We’re just trying to get in touch with all of the various people involved, and having a conversation before we move forward, before any kind of final decision is made. That’s the approach I’m going to take.”

The LPSS Facilities and Maintenance Department has binders full of correspondence with architects, engineers and contractors on water issues in the schools.

Photo by Robin May

Lemoine is armed with a report from Wynn White showing that approximately $900,000 worth of repairs may be needed at Burke and Live Oak, and $1.1 million at J. Wallace James. At a meeting earlier this month, the school board also voted unanimously to give Lemoine full authority to file any lawsuit he deems necessary.

The window for any legal action is closing fast, if it hasn’t shut already. The one lawsuit that the school system has filed, against the architect and contractor for N.P. Moss, was unsuccessful in district court earlier this year. Judge Marilyn Castle dismissed claims against Ratcliffe Construction and Corne-Lemaire Group in February, citing state law R.S. 38:2318, which sets a five-year statute of limitations on any claims concerning a professional service contract for public works construction. The school system has argued that this law, enacted by the state Legislature in 1999, came after the school system had already signed contracts for the new schools, with the exception of J. Wallace James. LPSS believes an older, 10-year prescription period should apply, which would give them until next month to file suit. LPSS is now appealing its suit against Ratcliffe and Corne-Lemaire.

In most cases, the school architects, engineers and contractors haven’t accepted blame for the problems. Many have pointed to the school system’s use of vinyl wall coverings on the inside of exterior walls — not recommended in humid climates — and the schools’ sometimes less than diligent maintenance of its air conditioning and ventilation systems as contributing factors causing mold and mildew.

The use of vinyl wall coverings, which are inexpensive and highly durable, was a decision made by former Superintendent Michael Zolkoski and the Houston-based architectural consulting group, PBK Inc. Zolkoski, who took charge of the school system in 1999 with a headstrong agenda to build more schools, upset many in the local construction industry with his attempts to consolidate construction bids and steer the work to Texas firms.

Robert “Popie” Billeaud’s firm, J.B. Mouton Inc., did not do any of the original work on the schools. He has since, however, worked with the school system in trying to determine the cause of some of the problems. “In my experience when you have problems like this on a building, more times than not it’s a combination of different factors, and it’s never just one particular person or one thing; it’s normally a lot of contributing factors.”

Billeaud also says he believes Zolkoski laid the foundation for the mounting problems. Billeaud says Zolkoski’s bid process prevented many local contractors from even applying for the work. “Zolkoski came in here with a huge agenda to build schools, and in my opinion, he did it on the verge of reckless abandonment,” Billeaud says. “In my opinion he came in here with some overly aggressive scheduling to accomplish this and he accelerated the process both on design and construction beyond what it should have been. And I think we’re paying the price of that today.”

Live Oak Elementary

Photo by Robin May

In his first month on the job, Michael Zolkoski laid down what he called his seven “commandments” on school construction and expansion. The new superintendent was full of ideas on how to better streamline the process. Among the more controversial was a change to allow contractors to bid on multiple school projects as a package, adopting a flat rate fee for architects, and of course, hiring PBK, which oversaw the construction of several schools in the suburban Houston school district where Zolkoski was superintendent before coming to Lafayette. Zolkoski’s motivation centered on cutting construction costs and time.

Attempts to reach Zolkoski, now the superintendent of an El Paso-area district, were unsuccessful.

One of the decisions made at the time that is now being questioned was the use vinyl wall coverings, even on the inside of exterior walls. Vinyl wall covering often comes with the disclaimer that its use on exterior walls “can create a moisture barrier or vapor sandwich, resulting in mold formation.” The schools went with a newly introduced perforated vinyl wall covering that was supposed to allow moisture to pass through.

LPSS Facilities and Maintenance Director Kyle Bordelon declined an interview request but did reply via e-mail to submitted questions. Asked if it was possible that any of the recent mold issues in schools could have been avoided had vinyl wall coverings never been used, he responded simply: “yes.” Asked who’s decision it was to use the vinyl wall coverings and why, Bordelon wrote: “The superintendent at the time and an out-of-state architectural consultant. To reduce cost and construction time.” Bordelon also noted that the school system is no longer installing any new vinyl wall coverings and that, in schools where it is still being used, “we are investigating and pursuing solutions.”

N.P. Moss Middle was shut down for half a school year
in 2008 due to mold and water infiltration.

Photo by Robin May

A recent report on Live Oak Elementary from the school’s architect, Allen Bacque, and its consulting engineer, Jay Breaux, mentions the vinyl wall covering and goes on to admonish the school system on maintenance issues: “We feel that the issue here is that with often delayed maintenance on things such as filter changes, equipment adjustments, calibration of the thermostats and leaving the kitchen hoods on for much too long, that an excess of moisture is being pulled through the walls by negative pressure in the building.” In their conclusion, Bacque and Breaux recommend establishing temperature controls for the building and training programs for janitorial staff.

Billeaud concurs that ventilation maintenance appears to be an issue with many of the new schools, and new buildings in general. “The objective today is to build a sealed envelope on a building and to make it air-tight,” he says. “The fact that we’re building them tighter and tighter, it requires you to be more accountable for every little nick-nack on the building. The science of constructing and operating a building today has changed drastically due to these factors, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing more of these problems today.”

To several school board members, the issues of maintenance and vinyl wall coverings seem like convenient excuses for architects and contractors to be raising now, and those members also point to evidence of other problems, such as the apparent improper installation of window units at Burke Elementary.

“[Vinyl wall coverings] have been raised as an issue at this point,” says board President Carl LaCombe, who was also serving on the board at the time the schools were built. “I don’t ever recall it being an issue back then.”

Answers may not really become clear until Wynn White issues its final report on the schools, which is not due out until next May. Superintendent Lemoine says the school system will be evaluating all its policies as information continues to come to light.

“Right now we are currently looking at maintenance and facilities and hired a firm to do all these assessments,” he says. “I’m sure a great deal of discussion will follow regarding some of the issues that we’ve had to face and so in subsequent years, whatever it is that we do, certainly that should be taken into consideration.”

“I have really tried my very, very best,” he continues. “As the issues evolve, we try to take care of them. We brought a policy before the board that whenever there’s any kind of [remediation] work that’s being done, we inform the parents immediately, so that everybody’s informed. I certainly will continue doing that.”

That’s little consolation for board members like Hefner, those with long memories who never expected to have to deal with so many issues with some of the school system’s most modern facilities.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” he says. “There’s some things that probably should have been caught way back when and for whatever reason they weren’t. I really don’t know. I just know that we should not be having these issues with these new facilities.”

School               N.P. Moss          Charles M. Burke    Live Oak          Ernest Gallet      J.W. James

Completion       July 15, 1999      Aug. 4, 1999           Aug. 7, 1999    Aug. 17, 1999    July 30, 2002

Architect           Corne-Lemaire    Poche Prouet         MBSB Group    Architects SW    MBSB Group
Contractor        Ratcliff                 Woodrow Wilson    Lemoine            Rudick               Rudick
                         Construction        Construction          Company          Company           Company

Cost to fix        $2 million              $900,000*              $900,000*          $110,000          $1.1 million*    

*cost estimates provided to school system by Wynn White Consulting