School Lawsuits Go On

Contractor’s case for disputed fee moves ahead

    The East Hampton School District’s ongoing legal battle with Sandpebble Builders — a contentious fight over building contracts for the multimillion-dollar school renovations — had its day in appellate court, the school board reported at Tuesday night’s meeting, but while the court decision may have been on everyone’s minds, it was not on their lips.
    “Counsel has cautioned the board to not discuss the case,” said George Aman, who led the meeting in the absence of Laura Anker Grossman, the board president.
    When pressured by audience members to at least alert the crowd of the outcome, which is a matter of public record, Jacqueline Lowey, a board member, answered, “There were four different decisions. Two came out in our favor, two are being sent down to lower court.”
    But Stephen Angel of the law firm Esseks, Hefter, and Angel, which represents Sandpebble, said yesterday morning that three of the decisions had been in favor of Sandpebble.
    “There are still issues to be determined,” Ms. Lowey said Tuesday night, meaning that the board needed to remain silent as parts of the lawsuit are still active.
    The school board initially brought a claim against Sandpebble. The firm fired back with a suit of its own for $3.75 million, after its construction contract was canceled in favor of another builder. Over the past four years, both sides have sent accusations back and forth through legal channels, and the attorneys’ bills have mounted. At last count, the district had spent more than $2.3 million on the case.
    A personal claim by the district against the owner of Sandpebble, Victor Canseco, in an action known as “piercing the corporate veil,” was dismissed in February, but was again on the docket when appeals decisions were handed down on Dec. 20.
    During this period, there was a changing of the guard in East Hampton as the superintendent, Raymond Gualtieri, left the school district, the faces on the school board changed, and new law firms were hired.
    What remained were four separate suits sent to Brooklyn’s Second Judicial Court of Appeals, three of them designed to show that the contract with Sandpebble was “void and unenforceable,” according to court papers.
    The significant question, according to the district’s attorney, Kevin Seaman, who spoke to the board about Sandpebble in September, was, “Did Sandpebble file a notice of claim within the required three-month period? Did they bring a timely action?”
    According to the courts, it did.
    In discussing the appellate court decisions yesterday morning, Mr. Angel said, “The school board brought action saying essentially that there was no contract, if there was it was canceled, and that there was a violation of good faith. . . . The court said there was a contract, no violation of good faith, and no termination.”
     Justice Emily Pines, who presided over past contests between the district and the firm, is no longer in charge of this case, “but Judge Pines’s decisions were affirmed in the appellate court,” Mr. Angel said.
    The appeals court said that there was, indeed, a valid contract. “The issue that Sandpebble negotiated in bad faith was thrown out,” he said.
    The second appeal, in which the school district moved that Sandpebble did not file its claim in a timely manner “was no good,” according to Mr. Angel.
    The third, which was the case against Mr. Canseco personally, had been amended by the school district “to bolster its claims against Victor,” Mr. Angel said. “It was an attempted end-run” which he called “ridiculous.” That appeal was denied.
    The fourth decision involved Deborah Mansir — the former school board president who allegedly signed a contract with Sandpebble and then submitted an affidavit claiming that she was not authorized, in her position, to sign the contract in the first place. Sandpebble’s case against Ms. Mansir went in the school district’s favor.
    According to Mr. Angel, it is nearing the time for depositions and moving forward with a trial date, most likely within the next year, if possible. Calls to the school district’s legal firm of Pinks, Arbeit, and Nemeth were not returned by press time; however, Mr. Seaman, the district’s attorney, said, “Nothing really was resolved.”
    “It’s not a scorecard kind of thing,” Mr. Seaman said yesterday. “Whether the contract with Sandpebble was effectively terminated has been sent back to the lower trial court, with no summary judgment.”
    “They’re asking for over $3 million, which is 4 percent of the $80 million that the project escalated to, but they were off the job before the first brick was laid,” he said. Initially, when Sandpebble was in negotiations with the district, the school renovations were to cost in the vicinity of $18 million.
    The lower court, Mr. Seaman said, would make the determination and take a look at the damages being sought by Sandpebble.
    In other business, the board discussed the progress on plans for a consolidation study with the Springs School District, one of the terms set out in a tuition contract the two districts signed earlier this year. “Part of the tuition rider is for Springs to find a funding source for a consolidation study,” said Mr. Burns, the interim superintendent. He added that there are government efficiency study grants available to schools. “The consolidation study will be funded through external sources, and we won’t have to contribute taxpayer money,” he said.
    A discussion about a rise in enrollment at the John M. Marshall Elementary School seemed to fizzle out without a directive from the board. Gina Kraus, who will soon step up as the new elementary school principal, said that the number of students has climbed from 612 to 622 since the school year began. “And two more are coming in the next two weeks,” she said.
    Dan Hartnett, a district bilingual social worker, was officially bumped up to his new position as the assistant elementary school principal. He drew applause from the audience, including his three sons.
    “I’m really excited to work with Gina,” Mr. Hartnett said after the meeting. As to his ease with the Spanish language, he said, “It’s critical to get parent involvement to improve students’ performance. I guess that’s where I can be most useful.”
    Eric Woellhof, the facilities administrator, acknowledged that the district is following up on a complaint from Gould Street neighbors about noise from the high school’s heating and air-conditioning units. “We’ve called the architect to come and check the decibels,” said Isabel Madison, the school’s business administrator.
    “We will continue on this matter until it’s resolved,” said Alison Anderson, a school board member.
    Patricia Hope, a school board member, said she was “still troubled” by the teen-night dances held at the Lily Pond nightclub the same night as school-sanctioned activities. The school has not contacted Lily Pond or the operators of the dances. Ms. Hope suggested that the school board send a strongly worded letter from Mr. Seaman “to say, ‘We know what you’re doing.’ ”
    A woman who would identify herself only as Alyssa harangued the board about the lack of follow-up on the swastikas drawn on a photo of the soccer team in the school’s locker room. “I’m shocked that no one has been arrested for this crime,” she said. “I was told it was the fault of this board.” Mr. Burns explained that the board was not the plaintiff in the matter.
    The woman was not comforted by this. “You didn’t do one thing for the children of this community,” she said loudly. “The rabbis of this community didn’t even know about this. You’ve dropped the ball,” she said, adding that she had contacted the Anti-Defamation League. “They will be in touch with you,” she said.