10 Tips To Help Stretch Maintenance Budgets

When school budgets tighten, maintenance managers feel the pinch right away. Alas, school maintenance budgets are easy prey for economizers. But, of course, that is as it should be.

“If you’re a school maintenance person, the primary mission of your organization is education,” says Dave Hill, executive director of Facilities and Operations with the Blue Valley School District in Oberlin Park, Kan.“The first priority for school district dollars has to be teaching kids.”

At the same time, a substantial part of a school district’s maintenance work consists of tasks that make it possible for teachers to teach. Teachers can’t teach if the lights are out. Kids can’t learn if mold is spreading through air conditioning ducts and fouling classroom air.

A maintenance manager’s job includes a host of essential tasks that must be completed, no matter how tight the maintenance budget. In fact, one of the most important services today’s school maintenance managers can provide is finding ways to stretch maintenance budgets that have already been stretched thin. Here’s a look at 10 creative ideas that school maintenance experts have tried and found an effective means of economizing.

1. Reset Schedules: Anything on a schedule becomes a cost-cutting opportunity for a maintenance manager.“We can mow the grass every seven days instead of every five days,” says Hill. “We can polish the floors twice a year instead of four times a year.” In other words, stretching a schedule also becomes stretching a budget.

2. Hire Landscape Coaches: “We’re using coaches and teachers to mow grass, weed, trim hedges and take care of everything associated with landscaping athletic fields at three high schools and two middle schools,” says James Thorsen, executive director of Facilities and Planning with Suffolk Public Schools in Suffolk, Va. “The coaches suggested the idea. They have always taken care of certain tasks around the athletic fields. So every year, now, we get them approved as temporary part-time personnel through the school board — this is a formal requirement. We pay $10 an hour. The coaches like it, and we can save salaries for two full-time people.” The concept has worked so well that Thorsen has applied the idea to interior painting, for which he hires 10-month district personnel — bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teaching assistants for $8 an hour. “Is this the best painting? No,” says Thorsen. “But we just paint walls. Nothing high that requires lifts, it’s just basic painting like you would do at home.”

3. Room Temperature, Please: Thorsen also recommends buying handheld digital thermometers for every school principal in the district. Now when a teacher calls the principal to say that a room is too hot or too cold, the principal can make an independent check before calling maintenance. According to Thorsen, the practice has eliminated unnecessary trips by maintenance technicians.

4. Plumbing by Camera: Thorsen recently bought a miniature camera to evaluate plumbing problems. “You know kids,” he says. “They put a lot of stuff down drains that lead to calls from principals about clogged plumbing systems. Now we run the camera into clean-outs and check out the situation. The camera can tell us if it is a minor clog that we can clear with a snake. Or if we have a collapsed pipe and have to bring someone in to jackhammer the floor.

5. Buy Low Instead of High: “We participate in a number of joint purchasing consortiums and selective purchasing agreements with our city,” continues Thorsen. “This is a way to get discounts for everything from toilet paper to fuel oil. I can’t tell you how much we save doing this, but I can tell you that we get discounts on just about everything we buy.”

6. Energy and Building Management Systems: At Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Neb., Robert R. Haringa, supervisor of Maintenance, finds that energy and building management systems can help stretch maintenance budgets. “We use a centrally controlled energy management system and apply the scheduling feature to cut back on the time that equipment runs,” says Haringa. “That’s cut utility expenditures. We’ve also installed light sensors and electronic controls on plumbing fixtures. Sometimes you do have to repair these things, and it makes you wonder if you are saving. I think they do provide some sort of savings.”

7. Early-Warning Systems: Another Haringa idea takes the maintenance folks into the offices of principals, other administrators and teachers across the district to explain maintenance. “We teach people in the schools how to read equipment gauges and how to identify problems before they become significant and costly,” he says.

8. Up-to-Date Maintenance Management Technology: Haringa also recommends up-to-date maintenance management technology. “We’re currently exploring a newer system,” he says. “We’re looking for new features that will improve communications between users in the schools and our staffs. For example, when a request comes in that we don’t understand, we have to play phone tag to find out what the problem is. We want a new system that will enable us to query by e-mail. Knowing what the problem is before going saves time.”

9. Come Early, Stay Late: Not long ago, Haringa began tinkering with the hours worked by the district maintenance staff. Today, some technicians come in early and some stay late, in a new flextime system. “Teachers don’t like it when you disrupt classes with maintenance work,” Haringa says. “If we can get someone there before class, we can get a lot done. The same is true if we have someone that stays after school and handles problems in and around classrooms. The teachers like it and, for us, it is more efficient than trying to work around busy classes.”

10. Outsourcing: Not everyone believes outsourcing can help to stretch maintenance budgets. In fact, not everyone uses outsource maintenance providers to save money. In many cases, outside contractors provide skills not available on staff. “I outsource everything my people don’t feel comfortable doing,” says Thorsen. “We also have complex chiller systems, and I outsource the maintenance on that.”

For districts overwhelmed by deferred maintenance needs, outsourcing can help maintenance departments spend more efficiently. “Our program is designed to help a district become more effective and more efficient,” says Bill Snowden, vice president of Operations for School Services and Facilities with Sodexho USA, an outsourcing provider based in Gaithersburg, Md. “We help a district develop budgets for materials and supplies. And we help them spend the budget efficiently.

“Our service is centered around a computerized work-order system that we bring with us. With this system, we track work orders, staff hours, labor and materials. By knowing where everything goes, we can help district’s develop efficient plans. It’s a very systematic approach.”

But is a monthly outsourcing fee for maintenance really less than the monthly expenses incurred by a school district’s maintenance department? “Not in all cases,” concedes Snowden. “But in most cases, it is. Sometimes, though not often, a district will be willing to pay more in order to improve the quality of the maintenance it offers.”

In other words, outsourcing might be for districts that have been overwhelmed by deferred maintenance and find themselves unable to gain control. In many cases, an outsourcing company will go to work for a district that has already cut budgets and laid people off and found that they can’t get the job done within the budget.

That’s when the budget needs to be stretched.