By MALLORY GRUBEN
A coalition of trade unions representing maintenance workers at Portland Public Schools (PPS) says the district is failing to adequately maintain its buildings and grounds and should invest more in staffing and preventative maintenance. And a recent study by a maintenance and facilities consulting company supports those claims.
More than half of PPS’s buildings are in poor or critical condition, according to a report published Oct. 2022 by Sazan Environmental Services. The report found that district maintenance crews are significantly understaffed, and that the district is not investing enough money to keep up with preventative maintenance. While that saves money in the short term, it will cost the taxpayer-funded school district more money down the line.
PPS paid Sazan $250,000 to review its buildings and maintenance work during the 2021-2022 school year. Sazan recommended multiple ways to improve the maintenance plan, but so far the maintenance and facilities department has not followed any of those recommendations, said union representatives with the District Council of Unions (DCU). DCU includes 13 building trades unions representing the workers who do skilled maintenance and groundskeeping at PPS. The unions affiliated with DCU are United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, Bricklayers Local 1, Carpenters Local 503, Cement Masons Local 555, IBEW Local 48, Glaziers Local 740, Laborers Local 737, Floor Coverers Local 1236, Machinists District Lodge W24, Painters Local 10, Plasterers Local 82, Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, and Teamsters Local 206.
“We had a labor leader budget overview meeting with the school district in January of this year. I brought up the SAZAN report and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero was unaware,” said DCU President and UA Local 290 Business Agent Nichet Newsome. “I brought it to a few school board members at a school board forum the PPS coalition put together. They were also unaware. So we’ve made it a point to educate everyone we can.”
PPS did not return a request for comment by press deadline.
‘Nine electricians, 177 buildings’
To determine how well PPS was doing with maintenance, Sazan compared the district to similar school districts in out-of-state urban areas, including Seattle Public Schools, Tacoma Public Schools, and San Diego Public Schools. It also used recommendations from the Association of Physical Plant Administrators (APPA), the “gold standard” of facilities maintenance, Newsome said.
In its staffing comparisons, Sazan found that PPS has the lowest staffing levels for maintenance and grounds workers of any of the districts surveyed. With 74 approved maintenance positions and 10 approved grounds positions, it fell well behind the APPA recommendations of 113 maintenance and 39 grounds workers.
For the maintenance workers, that means each person would be responsible for more than 120,000 square feet if the district’s total square footage were evenly split between them. That’s almost 42,000 square feet more than the industry recommended standard — or the equivalent of an extra elementary school added to each person’s workload, according to Sazan.
“I remember reading the Sazan report and seeing 177 buildings and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’ … It’s a huge district,” said Ryan Healy, a PPS electrician. Healy said the maintenance department is budgeted for nine electricians. “That’s technically nine electricians for 177 buildings.”
And four of those budgeted positions are vacant, Healy said. That’s true across most of the trades: Although the district budgeted for 74 workers in the 2021-22 school year, it operated with just 56.
DCU Vice President Kelly Bond, a Local 48 business rep, said the high vacancy rates are driven by low wages. On average, PPS trades workers make 30% to 40% less in wages and benefits than trades workers on private construction crews.
Electrician Adam Maurer has worked with the district for 18 years. He said when he started in 2004, he made about $4 an hour less than prevailing wage. Now he’s making $13 an hour less — or roughly $27,000 a year less for full-time work. Raising wages is one of DCU’s main focuses for contract negotiations, which will start later this summer.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Maurer, who co-chairs the DCU bargaining team. “It’s a bunch of old buildings, some of them 100 to 120 years old. How are we supposed to get people who are paid $13 under prevailing wage excited to come in here and deal with that?”
The value of maintenance
With such lean crews, there is little to no time for preventative maintenance, Sazan found. Plumber Dennis Crane said when he started working at PPS six years ago, his crew proactively replaced faucets. They’ve stopped doing that, he said, and now some of the sinks require students to hold down the tap with one hand while they rinse soap off the other.
But those faucets still technically work, so replacing them with something better falls to the bottom of the work order list when there’s a more pressing emergency, like a broken water heater or burst pipe, Crane said.
Maurer said he’s seen teachers complain on Facebook about loose outlets or noisy utility fans. Those are problems his crew wants to fix but can’t always get to quickly. It’s just as upsetting for them as it is for the educators, said Healy, the electrician.
“I hate not being able to get out there and get more work orders done, because I know there are teachers in the classroom trying to get stuff done, too,” Healy said.
Maurer said PPS’s preventative maintenance started slipping around 2000. That’s about a decade after voters passed Measure 5 that capped local property taxes and shifted the main funding source for public schools to income tax. The state also “equalized” how it divvied up its portion of education funding, usually raising budgets for rural districts and lowering them for urban districts.
For PPS, funding dropped significantly, and district administrators made deep cuts from the maintenance program because, as Bond remembers, they said they wanted to keep as much money in teaching and classroom budgets, so the students wouldn’t feel the budget cuts as directly. That’s still their budgeting strategy, Bond said. Preventative maintenance is usually the first thing to go when administrators need to make budget cuts.
“In all honesty, they don’t see the value in preventative maintenance,” Bond said. “They see it only as a necessity, occasionally, when something fails.”
But if the district truly wants to save money, it’s important to invest in preventative maintenance now, she said. According to the National Association of State Facilities Administrators (NASFA), every dollar not spent on building maintenance now will cost an agency $15 to $30 to fix down the line. Sazan found that the district invested almost $42 million less in preventative maintenance than the recommended industry standard. Using the NASFA figures, that $42 million saved now could balloon to between $630 million and $1.2 billion in costs later.
“If PPS stays on the current course, the cost of inaction will be untenable to the organization, as operating until failure costs significantly more than planned repairs and replacement,” the Sazan report says.
The DCU contract expires on Dec. 31, 2023, and union representatives expect to enter negotiations later this summer. DCU leaders want to highlight the findings of the Sazan report, so community members and district administrators realize how important it is to increase wages and dedicate funding to the maintenance department, so workers can focus on preventative maintenance.
“I’d want (administrators) to understand they have some really good people working in the maintenance department who are doing everything they can for these schools,” Healy said. “We need to be seen and we need to be recognized and we need to be taken care of, so that we can take care of the kids and take care of the schools.”
MORE: See the complete report here.