Better Call Behnken: Contractors claim Tampa charter school owes them nearly $1.5 million

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Fourteen contractors have filed liens against Avant Garde Academy Westchase, claiming they are owed a combined total of nearly $1.5 million for work done to build the new charter school.

Many of the contractors were brought in at the last minute, as developers struggled to meet their last deadline from the Hillsborough County School district. Superintendent Jeff Eakins gave the school several extensions.

Weeks after public school started in August, Avant Garde was still not finished, and Eakins threatened to reassign students to other schools and make Avant Garde wait until the next school year to open.

The only reason the school is open for class now is because contractors worked night and day to finish the buildings. Enough progress was made by the last deadline that Eakins allowed class to begin at a nearby church while finishing touches were made.

But now, many of those contractors say they are left on the hook after they worked so hard to finish the school.

Darren Holly, of American Asphalt Paving, says he is owed $215,000 and fears he will have to lay off some of his workers. He is furious, especially after the hard work he put in to help bail out the general contractor, Zirkelbach Construction, of Sarasota.

“I’m scheduled out five or six weeks, and they’d be like, ‘We need you here tomorrow,’ and I would call and move clients around… because I knew how important it was that they were able to get their [certificate of occupancy] to be able to get that school opened,” Holley said. “They would not have gotten it done without me.”

ESJ Capital Partners is the developer and owns the building. ESJ hired Zirkelbach as the general contractor. ESJ sent this statement to Better Call Behnken:

“The majority of construction is completed and we have been invoiced by the GC. Those invoices have been paid as submitted to us by the GC. ESJ has no knowledge of what the GC has done with the monies once received from us.”

No one from Zirkelbach Construction returned phone calls from Better Call Behnken.

ESJ’s Richard Berk, Director of Development, sent this statement:

“ESJ Capital Partners has been made aware of a matter pertaining to payments owed certain sub-contractors working for Zirkelbach Construction at the site of Avant Garde Academy Westchase.

As our General Contractor for this project, Zirkelbach Construction regularly invoices ESJ for specific sums pertaining to different facets of the construction process. We pay Zirkelbach directly, and are current on all invoices that have been submitted to us.

Consequently, ESJ has no direct knowledge or involvement as to how and when Zirkelbach compensates their sub-contractors.

Having been made aware of the matter though, we have contacted ownership of Zirkelbach, and encouraged them to address these matters at the earliest possible convenience.

ESJ appreciates the efforts of everyone involved with the opening of Avant Garde Academy Westchase, and our hope is for a rapid resolution.”

Meanwhile, the school district says it has already paid officials for Avant Garde nearly $404,000 for charter school funding.

The school is still not completely finished. The second floor is not completed.

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