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April 24, 2014

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School maintenance slipping

To-do list of a division hit by budget cuts has nearly tripled in a year

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Leila Navidi

Head custodian Lori Scott surveys the scene between classes on the campus of Roy Martin Middle School in Las Vegas Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009.

CCSD Custodians

Head custodian Lori Scott gets her supplies ready to clean up during and after first-period lunch on the campus of Roy Martin Middle School in Las Vegas Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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Most mornings, Principal Timothy Stephens can be found outside Desert Pines High School directing traffic into the parking lot, a task he readily concedes isn’t in his job description.

With no arrows on the pavement to direct motorists down various lanes, it’s a chaotic scene with honking and shouting among parents shuttling their children to school.

“I have parents ready to start fistfights. They are just irate,” Stephens said. “We need to get the arrows painted out here before somebody gets hit.”

He put in a request in August for someone in the School District facilities division to come out and paint arrows. He was told to get in line.

Welcome to the district’s world of maintaining campuses in the era of budget cutbacks.

As of July 31, the district’s backlog of maintenance work orders had nearly tripled to 12,937 from 4,327 at the end of July 2008, according to information being presented at Thursday’s School Board meeting.

According to the report, the district buildings generally are not in “showpiece” condition, nor do they reflect “comprehensive stewardship,” meaning the exteriors still appear clean and crisp.

In fact, the district’s maintenance department categorizes its service at the third level — “managed care,” which means school interiors appear only “average,” with minor blemishes on the exteriors. Buildings are generally well lighted and clean, although heating and cooling systems periodically fail.

But here’s the troubling news: Clark County’s public schools are at risk of looking downright shabby with building systems — heating, air conditioning, even fire alarms — in constant need of repair, according to the district staff’s assessment.

“Current levels of maintenance services are unsustainable and not in the long-term interests of the district,” said Paul Gerner, the district’s associate superintendent of facilities. To be sure, most campuses are not in obvious neglect. But some of the chores that were once part of the daily routine are being put off, increasing the risk for larger and more expensive problems.

In response to shortfalls in state funding, the district has cut its operating budget by more than $133 million to about $2.1 billion. The facilities division — which includes maintenance, landscaping and grounds — was understaffed even before the most recent budget cuts, district officials said.

Divisions across the board were cut about 12 percent, but the cuts were especially felt in the maintenance department because it was lean from a prior $15 million reduction in funding.

In 2008 there were 489 full-time employees assigned to the maintenance department to handle jobs that should require nearly 1,200 workers, according to the industry standards set by the Association of Physical Plant Administrators.

The department staffing dropped this year to 453 full-time employees.

The district’s carpentry and painting divisions are the most severely understaffed, operating at less than 15 percent of the recommended levels, according to the School Board presentation. The budget cuts cost the landscaping and grounds division about 26 full-time employee positions, out of 188. The loss is particularly felt at some of the high schools that no longer have a daytime employee to help with trash collection and custodial duties.

Some bad luck has further reduced the maintenance staff at Roy Martin Middle School, Principal Mary Hafner said. The school’s overnight custodian was hurt on the job and the district hasn’t been able to assign a full-time replacement. That puts more pressure on her head custodian, Lori Scott, who worries that important chores are being overlooked.

“I don’t like the feeling that we’re not getting the whole job done,” said Scott, a 15-year district employee.

The district moved Martin Middle School to a new campus last year, but even a nearly brand-new building has its maintenance challenges that could lead to larger issues down the road.

Hafner points to overgrown plants that have managed to climb up a ground stake and twine around a tree trunk. She worries vines will take over a wall and eventually cause cracks. The school has also been waiting for the carpentry department to finish hanging white screens in the classrooms for video presentations and other displays.

Some jobs are being done less frequently, such as scrubbing floors. Hafner spent a few hundred dollars to outfit each classroom with a broom and dustpan.

“We’re trying to instill good habits, that everybody has to clean up after themselves whether they’re at school or at home,” Hafner said.

When told the district had a backlog of work orders topping 12,000 in July, Hafner said she had no idea the line she was waiting in was so long.

She said she’s grateful that the issues at Martin are relatively minor.

“I’m not waiting for a leaky roof to be fixed,” Hafner said. “We know we’re lucky, and we can be patient.”

Bonnie Brinkerhoff, who teaches computer learning at Martin, said she makes use of the provided broom, along with her own cleaning supplies. She’s noticed the carpets aren’t being vacuumed as often and there’s more dust on surfaces.

“It’s just more work for the teacher,” said Brinkerhoff, who has taught 11 of her 17 years at Martin. “I’d prefer to have more custodians and focus on instruction.”

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