Public Comment

Commentary: BUSD Maintenance Problems No Surprise

Yolanda Huang
Friday May 12, 2006

The fact that the Berkeley Unified School District’s maintenance department is in disarray and lacks accountability is not new. BUSD’s maintenance department has been functioning poorly state for over two decades. And more money isn’t the cure. And a new department organizational structure isn’t the cure. The problem is the continuing lack of a qualified, skilled head of maintenance, a continuing lack of a competent plan of action, and the continuing lack of a system of accountability to evaluate whether BUSD is getting the job done. 

From 1999-2001, a Maintenance Oversight Committee (MAC), formed by then Superintendent Jack McLaughlin, spent 18 months working with consultants hired by the school district to develop clear specific plans and agreed-upon priorities on how to rectify maintenance’s disarray. The School Board adopted and approved these plans. However, once the parcel tax, Measure BB, which gives BUSD $4 million a year for maintenance, was passed, the School Board then reneged on its agreements and threw out the agreed-upon plans and priorities. So now, five years and 20 million dollars later, the department is still a mess.  

In 1999, I was asked by then Superintendent Jack McLaughlin to join an oversight committee on maintenance. We were a representative group including those in the union, parents, contractors working in construction, administrators and staff. Together we came to the conclusion that there were four basic problems: lack of money, lack of leadership, poor quality construction and poor coordination between the extensive construction BUSD had undertaken and the maintenance department, and most importantly, the lack of an accountability system. 

The lack of money resulted from the school district’s practice in the 1980s and ’90s of raiding the maintenance budget, to the point where the department only had $120,000 for supplies to keep up all the buildings. As a result, things became so broken that they became irreparable. And part of the sales job to taxpayers for the $275 million in construction bonds, was the need to replace what could not be repaired. However, between 1992, when the construction program began, and 1999, there still had been no maintenance. For example, brand new boilers installed in brand new buildings, which should’ve lasted for 50 years, had to be replaced after five because of the lack of routine maintenance. Citizens were appalled. To rectify this, the Oversight Committee proposed a new parcel tax, Measure BB, which was passed by voters in November 2000 with members of the Oversight Committee walking precincts to get this measure passed. 

The next issue, lack of leadership, was an extremely critical component. The current mess with BUSD’s maintenance department reflects this continuing problem. With the new high tech buildings we were constructing, the head of maintenance needs to be someone savvy on electronics as all new systems were electronically controlled (think fire alarm, security alarm, lighting heating and cooling systems), and savvy about the intricacies of plumbing, roofs, floors, as well as be able to coordinate and schedule so all maintenance is well done and completed in good time. For example, at LeConte school, when the new remodeling was completed, a new fire alarm system was installed that was not connected to the old fire alarm system. If a fire broke out in one part of the building, the alarm would not sound in the other part. Correcting these problems required expertise in both electrical systems and fire codes.  

To fix this problem, hiring a highly qualified, competent person was at the top of the Oversight Committee’s list. Members of the Oversight Committee helped convince the head of maintenance for Kaiser Hospital in Marin to become the director of maintenance for BUSD. His reputation was of someone extremely technically knowledgeable. And he proved so in his short tenure. He was able to provide the necessary guidance and supervision so that staff could get the job done. Staff morale improved. One of BUSD’s money wasters is hiring of outside contractors to do work because BUSD staff lacked the expertise to do it themselves. With Gene LeFevre, we knew, we had someone who could save us the money on outside contractors.  

The next problem we took upon ourselves was the burden on maintenance created by poor quality construction. We saw that unless BUSD built high quality buildings, and the construction took into consideration the future maintenance needs of the construction, all the construction mistakes became maintenance burdens. Some of the examples we faced when the Oversight Committee started was that Rosa Parks, then a brand new school, developed dry rot three years after the building was finished because of poorly installed gutters, and the sinks in the student bathrooms were falling off the wall because BUSD had failed to require that they be bolted to the walls. Improving construction bid specifications and requiring that Maintenance, specifically our newly hired and highly qualified director of Maintenance, Gene LeFevre be given the opportunity to review design drawings for maintenance issues, was the Oversight Committee’s recommendations. 

And lastly, the maintenance oversight committee then developed a detailed plan with clear specific priorities. The first priority was to fix all the fire and safety code violations. Then, all things broken would be fixed. While these corrective repairs were made, a schedule would be implemented so that routine preventative maintenance, tune-ups, would occur for all the new construction. And to accomplish this, accountability was the top priority. The Oversight Committee stated that there had to be a system to track all repair requests (work orders) so the department could tell what was broken, how quickly things were repaired, and what still needed attention. 

The Maintenance Oversight Committee told the board that BUSD needed all the components of this plan. The board agreed and unanimously adopted the Maintenance Oversight Committee’s plan. 

But the Boar’s decision was vacated shortly afterwards by the Board. After Gene LeFevre was hired, and the parcel tax adopted, Jack McLaughlin resigned as superintendent. Our current superintendent, Michele Lawrence, was hired in the summer of 2001, just when the new parcel tax monies started flowing into BUSD’s coffers. Superintendent Lawrence decided to dump the Oversight Committee’s plans, and to install her own. At that time, the Oversight Committee vociferously objected. However, the School Board chose to support the Superintendent. Gene LeFevre quickly resigned. The accountability system was ditched. The Superintendent implemented her plan. A new head of maintenance was hired, whose primary background was as a painter, not a strong technical or systems background. Over the last three years examples of the impact of this hiring includes the repeated flooding of Malcolm X. BUSD staff was not competent to deal with these problems, so outside had to be hired, creating delays and additional expenses. 

The coordination between construction and maintenance never happened. One easily visible example are the newly installed “security grates” at Willard Middle School visible along Stuart Street. Instead of increasing security, these grates reduce security because the grates are designed like a ladder, making it easier to climb into the school.  

We as a community have invested over $275 million in new construction for the school district. It is vital that the school board members to honor our generosity by properly maintaining this investment. It is vital that the next head of maintenance be a technical expert and a management expert. It is also vital that BUSD have an accountability system which evaluates how efficiently and effectively BUSD. This is why I have advocated for over five years, for “performance auditing”. Performance auditing could be seen, not as a threat to the administration, but as the periodic check-up portion of good administrative health. Given the $20 million maintenance debacle, perhaps BUSD could welcome performance auditing and accountability as important parts of good stewardship for an important public institution.  


Yolanda Huang is a Berkeley resident and community gardener.?