Attorneys dismissed in school roof suit


HOUSTON – The Houston school board is looking for new attorneys in its effort to get a leaking roof fixed.

Trustees dismissed Tupelo attorneys Gary Carnathan and Bill Murphree Jan. 13, after a closed door executive session that lasted an hour-and-a-half and was billed as a need to discuss “pending or possible litigation.”

Carnathan and Murphree would not talk about the change as they exited Monday’s meeting. Following executive session the board voted to seek new legal counsel.

“There was apparently a conflict of interest that has caused us to regroup,” said Houston School Board President Bart Munlin. “The conflict rested with one of the attorney’s law offices and not the district or an individual.”

Munlin would not elaborate other than to say one of the law offices had a relationship with one of the businesses named in the district’s on-going efforts to get a roof that was repaired at the Houston School of Science and Technology to stop leaking every time it rains.

“This is a huge disappointment for me,” said Munlin. “We didn’t know of this situation beforehand. I don’t see how we could have avoided this.”

Murphree, of Mitchell, McNutt & Sams, and Carnathan, of Carnathan & Malski, were hired in June to to handle litigation for the district. Carnathan and Murphree were charged with gathering data and information from the district and its consultants on why a roof installed approximately three years ago has not stopped leaks at the School of Science and Technology, formerly known as the Vo-Tech Center.

The district’s legal battle has named roofing material maker GAF, contractor Copper Top Roofing and project architect Pryor & Morrow.

The district contracted with Copper Top in 2010 to fix the roof at a cost of $240,000. The school board has repeatedly contacted architect Roger Pryor and Copper Top since the roof was installed saying they are not satisfied with the work.

Murphree told the school board in December the suit was in arbitration. The board has repeatedly met in closed session with attorneys to discuss the case.

“At this point one of the attorneys has said they will not charge us,” said Munlin. “The other attorney has said they will talk with their partners about reducing their bill to the district.”

In August the district budgeted $300,000 for attorney fees for potential litigation to force Pryor & Morrow, CopperTop Roofing and GAF Inc., to repair a leaking roof at the Houston School of Science and Technology. The district has also budgeted $400,000 to repair the roof if litigation fails.

Pryor and Copper Top have said the problem is with condensation pans on old air conditioning units and not the roof that was installed.

At a March 2011 meeting Pryor said the type of roof installed does not have a history of failure and he believes it was installed correctly.

Trustees Bart Munlin and Rayburn Parks climbed on and inspected the roof in March 2011 to try and find a solution to chronic leaks that have plagued the building.

The district hired NewPath Strategy Consultants, of Jackson, in June 2012 to develop a plan to assess and estimate costs for repairing leaks at the Houston Vocational Building and replacing air conditioners.

In April 2013 the board met with NewPath in executive session and then voted to have Board Attorney Jimmy Hood send a “strongly worded” letter of notice to all parties responsible for the roof on the School of Science and Technology.

Hood said at that time the district has repeatedly tried to avoid litigation and just wants the roof fixed.

Hood recommended Carnathan and Murphree to handle the district’s legal concerns based on their expertise and specialization in this type litigation.

Munlin said trustees have asked now NewPath to help them find a Jackson attorney with expertise in this type of litigation.

Trustees have met repeatedly in executive session for almost a year to talk about how they might go about getting the roof fixed or be reimbursed for work they believe was not done properly.

And the roof continues to leak. Teachers and students were exposed to wet ceiling tiles and puddles in the floor during the last school year.

Houston School Superintendent Dr. Steve Coker told trustees at the June 10 board meeting that who pays to get the roof to stop leaking will influence whether the district pays to fix the roof or repave the driveway around the Houston Middle School and High School. The paving project has been quoted to carry a $125,000 price-tag.

The motion to enter executive session Monday night was made by Trustee Carol Byrne and supported by trustees Daniel Heeringa and Marvin Beard. The motion to seek new counsel in the district’s suit seeking to get its roof fixed was made by Byrne and seconded by Beard. Both votes were unanimous with Trustee Thomas Howell absent.

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