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The Kindest Cuts?

As school districts live with the realities of maintenance cuts, more solutions--and mistakes--are f

With only two employees trying to keep 100 buildings and 700 acres of property looking spiffy, no one sniped when Portland (Ore.) Public Schools' groundskeeping crew fell behind. The question was more what to do about it.

So in 2000, administrators invented Community Care Day--a chance for civic and church organizations to chip in with the weeding, planting, edging and pest control. By August 2004, the program had grown from about 1,200 to 2,200 volunteers, with corporate sponsors jumping on the bandwagon. Hardware chain Lowe's tossed in an $85,000 grant to buy bark dust and T-shirts for the day's workers and Thriftway food stores served box lunches.

"Some folks wind up helping during the year, too, tutoring students, purchasing supplies for schools," says Pam Brown, director of facilities and asset management for the district. "It's good public relations because less than 20 percent of the households in Portland have children."

Education leaders like Bob Gosden give it two thumbs up. "Whatever works, as long as there's proper supervision and you've taken care of the nuts and bolts," says Gosden, who chairs the Association of School Business Officials International's School Facilities Management Committee. "Any community effort to do something good can only be beneficial," adds Gosden, also the assistant superintendent for the Elmira (N.Y.) City School System.

Portland's facilities woes sum up the state of school maintenance programs nationwide. As far back as 1992, the American Association of School Administrators found 74 percent of school buildings needed immediate repairs or replacement. In 2000, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that three-quarters of schools needed to spend money on repairs, renovations and modernizations. A year later, the American Society of Civil Engineers announced that 36 states listed school facilities in their top three areas of concern about state infrastructure. In 2002, ASCE gave schools a D- for building conditions.

It's not a city versus country concern. According to the NCES, at the beginning of this decade, 78 percent of rural schools needed to make repairs; only 36 percent--compared to 48 percent of city districts--could find enough cash in the coffers to make plans in this area. Even Gosden describes Elmira's situation as, "I can say we're doing fine, but we were doing better." His staff dropped from a paint crew of six to just two, with buildings now getting a new coat every seven or eight years rather than every three.

From the bean-counters' viewpoint, maintenance is just as good as any other place to start saving money in a shrinking budget. Yet, notes Sharon Murphy, a partner at Houston-based McConnell Jones Lanier and Murphy LLP financial consultants--which addressed a major money shortfall for St. Louis Public Schools--too many cuts actually require spending more money over the long run in deferred maintenance costs.

Administrators won't find step-by-step instructions on how and where to cut to avoid this penalty. Murphy's law involves putting a district through rigorous benchmarking off the top, weighing factors like the standard square footage of buildings having risen from 19,000 to nearly 22,000 over the past several years. But benchmarking is no science.

Don't count on getting average savings figures from vendors, either. "We are absolutely confident that we can deliver savings and quality improvement wherever we go," says Frank Mendicino, president of Aramark Education - Facility Services, which currently handles this area for 220 school districts. "We spend a considerable amount of time in the school buildings, understand the way they operate, then quote a savings we would assure. The degree really depends on what we find in that district."

Finally, the consequences of maintenance cuts aren't merely cosmetic. Last decade, researchers linked student achievement and building conditions in the Washington, D.C., school district: students' standardized test scores shot up 5.45 points for every building category improvement.

Still, Roger Young, assistant superintendent for finance at Manchester Essex Regional School District in Massachusetts, sees silver linings to today's maintenance woes. For starters, districts are more likely to share resources with their town and city counterparts. And technology offers ways to streamline maintenance priorities.

"We have to think positive about this rather than just being down in the dumps about not having enough money and getting caught in that whole cycle," Young says. Here's a peek at how several forward-thinking school districts have walked that talk:

Team Clean

As the supervisor of building modifications at Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., Bill Ringeman supervises 25 schools and four auxiliary sites with only a skeleton staff of those who have survived budget cuts. "There wasn't a huge rush district-wide to get things done," he confesses.

And Ringeman should know. During the layoffs, he was one of the crew at Liberty High School. "Our constant response to everyone was 'Well, we can't get that done now. We lost people.' We had a built-in excuse. And the administration was buying it because they have no idea what we do for the most part."

But when Ringeman took the reins, he began studying the team cleaning concept. It breaks down sanitation tasks into an assembly line blueprint: First, a light-duty specialist begins the route, emptying trash, dusting, polishing and doing other surface cleaning. Fifteen to 30 minutes later, a vacuum specialist launches off, followed by an employee solely dedicated to mopping. Each person checks the work of the specialist in front; anyone catching up pitches in to help the slower one until that lead person is again on track.

Contrary to popular belief, the magic lies in the routine rather than number of employees--it's possible for two people to handle the load simply by deciding who will tackle the first layer and who will follow with the latter tasks.

On the second night of Ringeman's experiment at his former high school, the maintenance crew saved six man-hours--time it could devote to those "when we get around to it" tasks like cleaning gum off the bottom of desks. Today, they dust every classroom once a week and they clean every desktop. The team collectively has 12 hours a night to accomplish these deeper cleaning responsibilities. Those numbers alone justified rolling out the program to all buildings.

Ringeman hasn't put a dollar figure on his first year, but the raw numbers shake out nicely: Each custodian covers 21,472 square feet in eight hours--with head custodians responsible for less square feet as the building's grade levels increase. Ringeman subtracts those numbers from the total footprint to determine how many more staff to assign each building. School principals voted at the end of 2004 school year to renew the program. "I'm walking a tight line right now because we don't want to lose custodians when we see the savings," he stresses. "We want to increase our appearance and health conditions for the kids, not just cut to the bare minimums."

He made only one mistake in his implementation--not getting support from top administrators first. "I just went out and kinda forced it on [our custodians], which is not a good way to handle it." Indeed, that pushback hit him, as he phrases it, like a ton of bricks, since many of the employees didn't want to change something they didn't perceive as broken.

"It takes a thick skin in my position because you're not liked when you walk in the door at night," Ringeman admits. "But ... I'm getting more done with less."


With an estimated $50 million budget shortfall between 2000 and 2005, Portland had already closed two elementaries, increased class sizes and trimmed school days (until the district held the dubious honor of offering the shortest school year in the country)--all before resorting to firing the district's 300 custodians. The job was turned over to Portland Habilitation Center for $9.6 million the first year, and a majority of the unemployed union custodians were picked up. But the move was not taken lightly and it certainly wasn't without controversy.

Today, three years after the dust settled, Brown reports the arrangement is working quite well. Twice yearly principal surveys reveal that schools are happy with the quality of work, and the city and county audits concur. Then there's the money angle. "An $11 million savings right now to me is one of the most positive results," she adds.

Outsourcing is happening elsewhere, too. When Houston Independent School District took that route, officials decided to hire third-party custodians for new schools as they're built. Existing buildings stay under the employee model, unless a principal requests the new program.

But St. Louis, like Portland, found itself shutting doors at 16 schools in 2003 and borrowing $49 million against its desegregation funds to carry the district for the next few years. The measures helped but still didn't reach the dollar levels that Manny Silva, chief operating officer and building commissioner, needed to trim.

He farmed out buildings and grounds maintenance, along with management of the school custodians (although not the janitors themselves). "We felt that school policies, procedures and practices hadn't kept up with the best practices out there today. So our theory was you can spend two or three years trying to figure out how to bring in best practices or you can outsource to a firm and get it right away," he says. Already he's noticed a more defined job description.

"Custodians a lot of times are at the beck and call of the principal. So we put the custodians under central management and say, 'Instead of moving furniture around because the principal asked you to, your job is to clean the floors, the walls, shovel the walk,' etc. Some principals are not happy with that," Silva confesses. But on his side of the slate, he slashed staff from 404 custodians to 330, and he now has a roving squad that shuffles to different spots, helping with urgent needs. Not to mention, his vendor once arrived in his office literally 15 minutes after hearing about unmowed grass complaints.

Under-breath gripes, of course, aren't the real bugaboo. It's the public ones that tear out school board members' hearts. For instance, in Portland, custodians lined up at meetings promising retribution if outsourcing became a reality. Others begged.

For Orell Fitzsimmons, the field director for the Service Employees International Union Local 100 AFL-CIO in Houston, objections circle around employees' salaries and benefits, which drop when the outside firms scoop them up. But as for the actual cleaning, "I don't think there's really any difference," Fitzsimmons admits when quizzed about outsourcing standards.

Young, of Manchester Essex in Massachusetts, finds himself on the "no thanks" side of the maintenance outsourcing debate for financial reasons. When you need a screw tightened or supplies moved, some privatization contracts charge by the task, making your total dollars spent at the end of the school year higher than if you paid wages and benefits. Also, some vendors expect you to purchase their own cleaning products. The school district loses that much more control while contributing to someone else's bottom line.

"Most folks don't like outsourcing because you're giving the money to someone else," Silva points out. "But the reality is maintenance and custodial work is very low margin. So if you can hire a firm recognized for best practices and pay them a small fee, it's worth it."

Professional Attitude

When Young served as executive director of business at Haverhill (Mass.) Public Schools, he bucked the outsourcing tide. There, the city public properties department handled maintenance of 22 school buildings along with police and fire stations and city hall. Frankly, the set-up was ripe with piled up work orders, slow response times and other headaches--birds roosted in the HVAC air intakes, for example.

So Young asked the city for the $400,000 it spent maintaining his buildings. He used the pot to pay a plumber, an electrician and general mechanics and a supervisor; downloaded an electronic work order system from the Internet; and then watched efficiencies soar.

" We have to think positive about this rather than just being down in the dumps about not having enough money and getting caught in that whole cycle." -Roger Young, assistant superintendent for fi nance, Manchester Essex Regional School District, Mass.

Eventually, the crew began accepting orders to help the city workers with their workload, becoming a small revenue center for the district. "Sometimes you just have to be persistent enough to make something work," Young says. His secret: invest in training, engage in long-term planning, educate yourself on current best practices and argue for the budget with solid numbers on your side.

That's why he spearheaded a school facilities management guide sponsored by the National Forum on Education Statistics, the chief data-gathering arm of the NCES. Since its publication in 2003, 16,000-plus people, including many school business officials, have at least perused its pages. "There are resources out there and you don't need to reinvent the wheel," Young reminds. "And administrators need to keep in mind that they shouldn't be the only ones trying to figure out this puzzle. There are a lot of stakeholders in the community and within the school administrations that have good ideas, so think beyond the room you're in and include others."

Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based freelance writer who frequently covers school construction and facility issues.

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