Without hesitation, Michael Mulheirn, executive director of Facilities and Transportation at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Ky., notes that keeping school buildings in good shape requires vigilance, employee training, much observation, much oversight and a good system of checks and balances. Whew! That's a tall order.
Filling that tall order pays off, of course, in facilities that are clean, well maintained and in good condition. Here's how Mulheirn keeps his district of 98,000 students, 152 schools and 14.6 million sq. ft. of space in top shape and deferred maintenance-free.
"The job of a custodian is not to clean the building," insists Mulheirn, "but to maintain the health of the building. That just doesn't happen by accident." To that end, all new custodians and plant operators attend a standard training program.
Once custodians are trained, they enter a substitute pool, where they work full time with benefits wherever needed. "In the sub pool, they are exposed to a lot of different schools," says Mulheirn, "and they stay in that pool until they're hired permanently. It gives them a lot of exposure and the opportunity to check out the schools."
Mulheirn notes the benefit of a sub pool: "If a smaller elementary school has two custodians and one calls in sick, you've lost 50 percent of your workforce." Another benefit is that the subs are trained to JCPS standards, which wouldn't happen if the district relied on staffing provided by a temporary labor organization.
JCPS has two quality control inspectors who check a certain percentage of work orders and act as a liaison to the principals. If a principal has a concern or an idea about something he'd like to do, he calls the quality control inspectors. "It helps ensure the quality of the maintenance of our buildings is up to standards," says Mulheirn. "If something's not quite right, we'll hopefully see it ourselves without having someone else tell us about it."
Thursday Site Visits
Every Thursday evening, two teams do school site visits; each facility is visited once during the school year. Each team is comprised of six to eight people from a variety of disciplines, including safety, quality control, electrical, mechanical, general maintenance and grounds people.
"We let the schools know ahead of time that we're coming to visit," says Mulheirn. "We meet with the plant operator and with the principal as needed. We do a complete walk through of the school."
The visits are well supported by the principals. Sometimes when the team arrives, they're greeted with a list of things that need to be seen and discussed.
In addition to developing lists of actions for the visits, information collected is entered into a database of bigger projects. The result is that, depending on what is found during the site visits, priorities may be changed. For example, if the plan calls for a specific roof to last another five years but the site visit shows it won't last that long, it will be moved up on the long-term priority list.
"The site visits give us another layer of information over and above work orders and quality control," Mulheirn sums. "They're invaluable."
A fall retreat allows the facility team to start planning how to spend next year's money, with the district's fiscal year starting on July 1. The team plans for projects ranging from small up to roof-replacement size.
"All the needs that we've collected through the year are presented," explains Mulheirn. "Every department has an opportunity to share. We spend most of one day just listing what we believe are the things we need to do to improve the schools. We discuss what are the priorities, wants and needs. We start whittling the list down to the money we've got."
The entire process takes more time than a retreat itself allows for — it takes close to two months. But when it's done, the administrators know how they're going to spend next years' money. v
"We feel as though we have a system in place that allows for improvements, and it's not just who knows who or who shouts the loudest," Mulheirn sums.
Three times every year, every school is inspected from a custodial perspective. Inspectors, complete with a checklist, meet with a school's plant operator and principal to review everything down to the air filters.
The checklist is built on a 100-point scale. Scores are averaged out, and first, second and third prizes are awarded. "The program is well received," notes Mulheirn. "It's amazing how many schools, when they win, want to keep winning."
The inspectors are retired plant operators. Mulheirn says it isn't an expensive program — the inspectors are contracted and paid a set fee — and that the money is well spent: "We can use the information collected to conduct additional training, if necessary."
Plant operators and custodians participate in a two-day summer institute. "We bring them all in, train them, look at new techniques and see what we've learned this year," describes Mulheirn.
One thing the district changed in the last year was how it dispensed chemicals. Automatic dispensing machines are now used that dilute concentrated cleaners as they're dispensed. "It was an extra safety precaution we thought was worth taking," Mulheirn points out.
Preventing deferred maintenance isn't easy. Indeed, it requires great effort to keep schools clean and well maintained. Still, the end result is well worth the effort.