Leaks and floods result in a wave of questioning
A series of leaks and floods at several district schools in recent weeks have raised concerns about the quality of recent school construction, and put maintenance issues back on the map.
“Our schools are flooding, our schools are in trouble,” said Beebo Turman, a member of the citizens’ Maintenance Planning and Oversight Committee, at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.
Turman and other parents on the committee, which is composed of citizens and district staff, are asking school officials to hold architects and contractors accountable for any design or building errors, and to rapidly hire more maintenance staff.
Lew Jones, the district’s manager of facilities planning, says he has contacted architects and contractors where appropriate, and is pushing to hire qualified maintenance staff, including a new maintenance director, as soon as possible. He said state law and bureaucratic processes necessarily create lengthy hiring procedures, and new staff will probably not be in place for several months.
The most significant flooding, according to committee members and school officials, has occurred at Berkeley High School, the Longfellow Arts & Technology Magnet Middle School, Malcolm X Arts & Academic Magnet School and a daycare facility on the LeConte School campus.
Smaller leakages have spouted at several other schools, according to Jones, including Thousand Oaks and Rosa Parks, where mold has developed in a conference room.
Jones said he has called contractors, who did recent work on the two buildings, to seek remedies.
Jones has also asked ELS Architects of Berkeley, who worked on the recent renovation of Longfellow, to look into design flaws that may be leading to flooding in a basement room at the school.
ELS did not return Daily Planet calls for comment.
School principals say they have been pleased with the district’s day-to-day response to flooding issues.
“I think the response time is adequate,” said Lawrence Lee, executive vice principal at Berkeley High School, which has experienced flooding in its G Building during the recent heavy rains.
However, Lee said the district has not been so quick to deal with several lingering maintenance issues at BHS, including backed-up drains, roofing problems and faulty lighting on the outside of buildings.
Activists say that a lack of adequate staffing and management are responsible for the backlog of maintenance problems. “There’s nobody taking care of business now,” said Yolanda Huang, a Berkeley High parent who has served on the maintenance committee.
Jones readily acknowledges the short staffing, and says the district will be hiring about 15 new employees in the next six months, some sooner than others. But, he says the existing maintenance crews have worked hard under difficult conditions. “Our staff has been short-staffed for some time,” Jones said, “and they have really been out there busting their tails.”
Jones also acknowledges that the recent departure of Gene LeFevre, the district’s former maintenance director, has left a leadership vacuum. But, he points to a school board vote on Wednesday, approving a $10,000 per month contract with ABM Engineering of Oakland, to last no more than five months, that will provide a temporary manager until a new one is found.
Maintenance committee members said they were generally happy with the ABM contract, but objected to the district’s failure to include them in the hiring decision.
They also criticized the district’s larger plan to hire permanent new staff. Superintendent Michele Lawrence initiated the scheme in the fall, and won school board approval in October, overriding some elements of a maintenance committee-endorsed plan the board passed in May.
The new plan calls for the hiring of “maintenance engineers,” who are skilled in at least two trades, rather than workers who have expertise in one particular area, such as plumbing or electrical work.
Stephanie Allan, who serves on the maintenance committee, and works for a local union of stationary engineers – similar to “maintenance engineers” – said the plan is unrealistic. She said multi-talented workers are difficult to come by, and command higher salaries than those being offered by the district.
Allan added that it would take years to train the district’s current employees and raise them to the level of maintenance engineers.
“It’s like, I’m in Kansas and I want to get to Oz,” said Huang, echoing Allan’s argument that the plan is unrealistic, “but how am I going to get there?”
Jones noted that the district has recently raised the pay it will offer maintenance engineers by about 10 percent, but said he cannot be sure about the types of applicants the system will attract.
“We believe we should be able to get people on board, but until we advertise, we can’t be sure,” he said. “We’ll have to do a good job of recruitment.”