St. John school board halts rebuilding contract

School officials in St. John the Baptist Parish halted a $13 million contract signed last week for overseeing work on two storm-battered schools under the threat of stiff penalties from the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors because the firm awarded the job was not adequately licensed.

St. John School Board members discussed the licensing board’s threat behind closed doors during their meeting Thursday. After more than an hour, they emerged from the executive session and agreed to comply with the agency’s cease-and-desist order, board members said. They voted June 6 to hire Hammerman & Gainer International, a New Orleans company, to oversee the rebuilding of East St. John High School in Reserve and Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in LaPlace, both severely damaged by Hurricane Isaac last year.

In a July 16 letter, Murphy Foster III, a partner at the Baton Rouge law firm Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson LLP, who serves as an attorney for the licensing board, informed the School Board that the work slated to be performed “would appear” to require a construction management license, a credential that HGI lacks.

But since his colleagues on the board had already voted, School Board President Clarence Triche went ahead and signed the deal July 22.

In a follow-up letter Monday, Foster was undeterred. “Louisiana law is very clear,” Foster wrote to Orenthal Jasmin, a St. John assistant district attorney who serves as the School Board’s lawyer.

“All members of a joint venture performing work requiring a contractor’s license must possess individual licenses.”

The School Board plans to hold a special meeting Tuesday to consider its options moving forward, including reviewing whether HGI can “deliver evidence to us that they have the license they need to move forward, both as our contractor and to prepare the appeal” with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over how much money the district can get to rebuild the schools, said member Russ Wise. School officials peg the damage to the two buildings to be about $65 million, Jennifer Boquet, a spokeswoman for the parish’s public schools, told The Advocate on Monday.

HGI’s contract is slated to cover about 20 percent of the construction costs, Boquet said.