Groundbreaking at the Sutton, Mass., school project in July, 2011.

Attorney Wendy M. Mead has had many contractors as clients, so she understands some of the pitfalls of construction. But it wasn’t until she volunteered to manage a big school renovation and expansion project that she found out how difficult that part of construction could be.

As chairwoman of the Sutton, Mass. School Building Committee, she’s learned tough lessons while dealing with a $59.9-million combined middle school-high school renovation and expansion (the cost is roughly split between the town and the state).

Sutton’s Board of Selectmen voted recently to terminate Wakefield, Mass.-based TLT Construction Corp., the project’s general contractor, and Western Surety Co., Chicago, which provided TLT's completion guarantee, says it is studying the matter to decide what to do next.

“I know now more than I ever wanted to know about construction projects,” Mead says ruefully.

The heart of the project is the replacement and expansion of existing middle school and high school buildings on the campus and the renovation of other parts of the core building, constructed in 1989. New and modernized classrooms will accommodate the district's 800-plus students.

With work only 80% complete, the start of the school year had to be delayed four days. And until Sept. 16, the juniors and seniors had classes off-campus in makeshift classrooms at a nearby church. An auditorium remains basically a shell.

The district hasn’t paid TLT since May, withholding money the Sutton expects is owed to subcontractors and suppliers.

TLT’s basic contract was for $42 million. Sutton officials are using $450,000 in liquidated damages (accrued at $75,000/month for six months) to pay six subcontractors owed money for completed work, says Mead.

Mead can’t think of any action by town officials that might have prevented the default. “We’ve done everything we could to keep this on schedule. Now, we’re eight months behind… I’ve been living this project for years,” she says.

Inadequate Existing Facilities

As the town weighed the cost of construction to local taxpayers in the years leading up to the project, Sutton's combined middle and high school building couldn’t accommodate the student population in appropriate classrooms and lacked adequate fire protection systems and handicapped accessibility.

“These buildings had to be replaced,” Mead says.

After resolution of a protest by the second-low bidder, TLT broke ground in July, 2011.

By early 2012 trouble was evident with TLT, which missed deadlines from the beginning of the project, Mead says. According to the school building committee presentation on Sutton's website, other problems included asbestos found under a slab, unsuitable soils and unexpected underground utilities coordination issues.

In spring of 2013, TLT continued to say it could meet an April deadline but the school building committee remained skeptical, according to the presentation.