The Choice Foundation Board of Trustees voted unanimously at its February meeting to move forward with construction on a business office and partial school that has doubled in price over the past year to roughly $1 million.

Board members also decided Feb. 26 to file a lawsuit against Sizeler Thompson Brown, the architectural firm hired to complete the project, for the two-fold increase in construction costs. Multiple attempt by The Lens to reach someone at the firm by phone to talk about the lawsuit went unanswered.

James Huger, the board’s chairman, said negotiations began in January 2012 to house the Choice Foundation’s headquarters at Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street. The building will also house prekindergarten and kindergarten classes.

The board originally allotted about $500,000 for the construction project and hired Sizeler Thompson Brown for guidance on how to conform the building to the foundation’s needs.

About a month later, the board hired the Sizeler firm to complete the project and oversee the contracting company Sizeler recommended for the job. The board also agreed to raise the project budget to $625,000, a figure Sizeler assured would be the maximum cost of construction, Huger said.

Meanwhile, negotiations were underway with the church on a facility lease, which gave the Choice Foundation until May 15 to uncover any building issues and provide the church with a list of improvements. Huger said the agreement also gave the board the same deadline to walk away from the deal.

The project has since been delayed extensively due to termites, historical building permitting problems and other unforeseen issues, Huger said. The foundation has shelled out about $200,000 so far on construction-related costs.

Three weeks ago, the Sizeler firm informed Huger that the fire marshal has ordered an additional $135,000 in safety materials, as well as a sprinkler system for the entire building that could cost between $60,000 and $300,000. The unanticipated expenses bring the total project cost to between $900,000 and $1 million, Huger said.

Had the board voted to walk away from the deal, Huger said the foundation would have had to find an alternate site for the business office and classrooms. He told board members that the current housing of pre-K and kindergarten classes at McDonogh #42 Elementary School is “not an ideal situation.”

Huger shared with the board an earlier email from the Sizeler firm stating that no sprinklers were needed for the classrooms, also noting a bill from the Sizeler firm for a “detailed code review.”

Board member Steven Serio, a local attorney, said the contract includes a clause allowing the board to recoup the payout of Sizeler’s liability insurance policy, which is capped at $1 million.

“I think we’ve got a helluva case,“ Huger said. “The Choice Foundation did everything right in this. The question is, how much do we get and when do we get it?”

Huger offered to personally loan the board $500,000 for the project if necessary and said any additional costs incurred will be repaid by cash flow from student enrollment.

“We will get the funds to finish this thing,” he said.

Heather Miller

Heather Miller is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Lens' Charter School Reporting Corps. She is a former staff writer for The Independent in Lafayette, and is now based in New Orleans.