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BUSD Maintenance Department in Disarray

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday May 05, 2006

The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Maintenance Department is in need of repair. 

The office suffers from major disorganization and a lack of accountability, according to Lew Jones, BUSD director of facilities, who recently assumed control of the department. 

Meanwhile, the staff is down a fifth of its workforce. That includes department head Rhonda Bacot, who left the district March 3 to take a position elsewhere. 

Jones said that when he took over, he was shocked to find the department in such disarray. Work orders have been filed sporadically or left incomplete, employees aren’t trained comprehensively, which forces the district to use expensive contract workers, inactive utility accounts remain open, rent due to the district has gone unpaid and waste management isn’t receiving adequate attention, he said. 

He chalks it up in part to a lack of personnel. 

“There’s a whole host of systems that need to be improved,” Jones said. “But it’s difficult when you don’t have enough management to make things efficient.” 

Ann Aoyagi, administrative coordinator for the maintenance department agreed that many of the problems stem from unfilled positions. BUSD has been without a carpenter for three years, the daytime shift supervisor died in September and the evening shift supervisor left later that month, she said. Of the department’s roughly 35 posts, seven are vacant. 

In the effort to pull the department out of the swamps, the Berkeley Board of Education approved a new pecking order Wednesday. Jones, in addition to his role as facilities director, will serve as the central point of contact for all maintenance, operations and transportation matters. Specialized managers in those fields will serve as a bulwark against future accountability snafus, staff say. An existing grounds supervisor position will be eliminated. The total encroachment on the district’s general fund is estimated at $65,000. 

The cost to the district resulting from the department’s many inefficiencies is not known, Jones said. 

Board Director Nancy Riddle doesn’t think restructuring the department—and digging into the general fund to do so--will yield significant changes. She voted against the reorganization proposal.  

“I don’t want the increase and I don’t believe the structure will solve the problems,” she said. What will are “better communication structures rather than administrative structures.” 

Jones concurred that communication is an issue, particularly with custodial staff. For example, maintenance will get calls to change light bulbs or, as Aoyagi pointed out with mild amusement, requests to pick up dead rats—tasks typically assinged to custodians. 

“There are differences from site to site in terms of expectations,” Jones said, adding that the new management structure represents the district’s best effort at getting everyone on the same page.  

Twenty-six year veteran employee Pedro Reynosa concurred there’s a communication problem, but typically it’s been between the administration and workers. 

He encourages new managers to “Be more close to the people. It’s one thing when you leave a note that says ‘do this,’” he said. “A supervisor who’s working with the people and not just sitting in front of the computer ... [that’s] very important to the workers.” 

Steps are underway to restaff the department, but as Aoyagi points out, the district’s employment process is lengthy. It took five months for her to secure a position at BUSD; she speculated that the same could be true for new maintenance workers. 

In the meantime, maintenance is not at a standstill, she said. 

Student board Director Teal Smith hasn’t noticed any blips in the general operations and tidiness of Berkeley High School. 

In fact, she said, “Bathrooms are a lot cleaner than they used to be.””