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School board settles two lawsuits

Disputes stemmed from payment for services in building of new high school

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Clarke County Public Schools officials are happy to have put two lawsuits behind them as they progress in building a new high school.

But they'll have to build it with $422,488 less than they were anticipating.

Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects filed a lawsuit in Clarke County Circuit Court on Aug. 18, 2008, against the system seeking payment of bills left unpaid by the previous School Board as of the end of 2007. By Dec. 31, 2007, all but one member had been unseated in an election that November.

The firm had performed work on a proposed new high school, then expected to be built on land owned by the Salvation Army on Westwood Road. While the board indicated its intention to pay the outstanding bill, it remained outstanding.

"The new school board took office and said, 'before we pay those bills, we need to do a little research,'" Superintendent Michael Murphy explained Friday. "The school board began the process of doing the research, mainly because they were sued by VMDO, and we hired an attorney, we went through all the bells and whistles as one would do when one is defending themselves in a lawsuit."

Then, on May 20 of this year, Brailsford & Dunlavey, which also had performed work on the high school project for the previous board, accused the panel of failing to pay it in full for services rendered.

VMDO sought $340,517 in its suit; Brailsford & Dunlavey sued for $81,971.26. Attorney M.E. Gibson Jr. represented both plaintiffs.

Parties came to an agreement in June to settle both lawsuits and the cases were dismissed in early July, according to court records.

"We came to the place where it was in everyone's best interest to settle the lawsuit without going to court," Murphy said. "So instead of airing dirty laundry, the school board said, 'You know, going to court is not going to be productive for anybody.'"

The agreement called for the School Board to pay the outstanding fees owed to the two plaintiffs, Murphy explained, but not any interest or other costs sought by the lawsuits.

That money came out of the funds reserved for building the new high school, the superintendent said.

"It's unfortunate it couldn't be used for that purpose but it was also money that was allocated and spent prior to the old board [leaving] for a product partially delivered and didn't work out," Murphy said.

The School Board's insurance carrier, the Virginia School Board Authority, contributed $100,000 to the system's $172,000 bill for its attorney, Murphy said. He indicated the payment would not affect the system's premiums.

Members of the current School Board also alleged malfeasance on the part of the previous board and former Superintendent Eleanor Smalley with regard to the work done involving the two plaintiffs in the suits. Murphy said the Clarke County commonwealth's attorney's found no evidence of malfeasance and did not investigate further.

Murphy said he's glad to have the lawsuits behind him.

"We're ready to move on, there's no doubt about it," he said, adding that the board is making progress on the project, though they still have many steps left to take.

The School Board will hold a special at 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the new high school project.

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