Maintenance and Operations: Brilliant Ideas Needed

“I’ve been in this job almost 10 years,” says Michael Mulheirn, executive director of Facilities and Transportation for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., “and I run things like Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He bounces ideas off his lieutenants, allowing them to add to his ideas to make them better. At the end, they come up with an absolutely brilliant idea.”

Brilliant ideas are definitely needed in school maintenance and operations departments as budgets become more and more stringent in this current turbulent economic climate. That’s where Mulheirn and his counterparts across the country come into play, taking a team approach to meeting the low budget/high expectations conundrum.

“Just because I’m the boss doesn’t mean my ideas are always the best,” says Mulheirn. “Plus, there’s hardly a thing that goes on in one department that doesn’t affect another, so we like to foster an open, friendly environment where people exchange ideas, discuss projects and challenges at the table, and come up with solid solutions.”

For example, each Jefferson County Public School is inspected three times per year. Awards are handed out to the cleanest schools. At just $9,000 per year (to pay retired plant operators to conduct the inspections), the cost is well worth the investment, as the overall cleanliness of the schools has improved.

Here are other ideas that are proven to save money while meeting expected standards of maintenance and operations.

Energy Conservation
“We’re on our fourth summer of four, 10-hour work days,” says Jess Hudson, executive director of School Facilities for Garland Independent School District in Texas. The district’s HVAC systems are adjusted to a higher temperature level for three full days each week for eight weeks. “It fluctuates,” he says, “but we have seen anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 per week in savings. Granted, working two extra hours per day takes a little getting used to for employees, but they seem to enjoy a three-day weekend during the summer.”

Hudson adds that he hasn’t calculated the cost savings from running buses for summer school just four days per week, but clearly it equals a one-fifth fuel savings. These combined savings are significant for the district, which is the 14th largest in Texas and houses more than 57,000 students in 47 elementary, 13 middle and seven high schools.

Mulheirn offers two energy-management strategies that others have likely also initiated, but are so significant that they bear presenting. First, the district has lowered the temperature of the water loops that heat the boilers. “It’s to the point where you simply can’t overheat a school,” he says. “Even if you have a faulty thermostat that is calling for more heat, the heat simply isn’t there to give.” He notes that this measure, combined with others, has contributed to the district cutting gas consumption by 50 percent since 1980. That is a lot of savings for a district that educates 98,000 students in 90 elementary, 24 middle and 21 high schools.

The second strategy involves electricity. The district is embarking on an initiative to save $500,000 per year in electricity by removing the “vampire load” from classrooms and offices. “We’re going to phase out space heaters, mini refrigerators and extra coffee pots and microwaves,” says Mulheirn. “Like a vampire sucks blood, these appliances suck a little power here and a little power there, which adds up to big costs.”

On the other hand, John Dufay, director of Maintenance and Operations for Albuquerque Public School District in New Mexico, shares a more unique energy conservation program created by his team that operates on an individual school level. Each school that opts to participate in the voluntary program (currently, one-third of the district’s 129 schools are participating) is assigned a teacher who is responsible for the program. Energy is incorporated into the curriculum across all levels and subjects.

“For each school, we create a baseline of energy use from the previous two to three years,” says Dufay. “Then, each school works at reducing energy consumption using such tactics as turning off lights and turning down thermostats. We figure the cost savings on a quarterly basis and give each school one-third of its savings, which can be used in any educational manner. Some schools are saving $3,000 per month, which equals a $3,000 reward each quarter.”

To ensure the success of the program, teachers are given training in such areas as energy, how to conduct special events and how to draw in the students. In addition, the district gets the students involved with such programs as fuel cell car races. “The students enjoy it,” Dufay says, “and they take what they learn home to be implemented there.”

Technology Savings
Another area in which maintenance and operation budgets can be improved while sticking to high standards is from both the use and reduced use of technology. For example, Garland Independent School District has its own fiber optic network. The district uses it to control its irrigation systems. “This morning,” says Hudson, “we had a brief rain shower. Rather than sending out four people and taking hours to turn off all the irrigation systems, it took one person a few keystrokes. Nobody had to stop their normal routine. It’s about using technology to work as efficiently as we can.”

Mulheirn and his team have a found a way to reduce the use of technology. “We now have Upload Thursdays,” he says. “Everyone turns off their computers every night except Thursday. That’s the night the IT department is able to install updates and maintain the health of the computers.” He’s hoping the new program will save quite a bit of electricity.

Staffing Savings
The experts cited in this article have found some creative ways to manage the maintenance and operations budget without needing to reduce staffing. Albuquerque Public School District has a plant operator at each high school, who handles all the HVAC and mechanical systems at that school, plus a nearby elementary or middle school. “We can justify the plant operators because our high schools are large,” says Dufay. “They’re 300,000 square feet to 495,000 square feet. Since we implemented this program, the energy savings it has generated has paid for the plant operators’ salaries and benefits, plus a lot more.”

Jefferson County Public Schools also uses plant operators during the day, along with a custodian. However, the district has recently shifted the majority of its custodians to second shift, which is proving very efficient. “It’s hard to clean a building when it’s full of kids,” says Mulheirn.

Similarly, two years ago, the district tried a pilot program where 20 maintenance employees were moved to second shift. The staff was broken into teams, and each team spent two evenings at one school, working on preventive maintenance plus completing outstanding work orders. Feedback from principals has been so positive that Mulheirn is moving another 40 maintenance employees to second shift to get even more work completed in the evening. “It’s less disruptive to the schools,” he says, “and it helps stretch our dollars to be more productive.”

Preventive Maintenance Savings
Implementing a preventive maintenance program is certainly not a new idea. However, it’s so critical in terms of meeting high standards while saving money that it bears mentioning. Two years ago, Albuquerque Public School District, which educates more than 87,000 students in 89 elementary, 27 middle and 13 high schools, started a preventive maintenance program.

Dufay acknowledges that, initially, it was a challenge, especially because they did not add staff. “There was a period when we had more work orders because we were creating them for preventive maintenance,” he says, “but we hadn’t stopped reactive work orders. Now, reactive work orders are dropping because we’re catching problems when something simply needs adjusted or before it breaks.

“The hardest part has been changing the way the staff thinks,” Dufay continues. “We’ve had to teach them to be proactive rather than reactive.” But the effort has paid off. “We see equipment lasting longer and requiring fewer repairs,” he says. “Two years ago, the value of our maintenance work orders was $21 million. Last year, the value was about $15.2 million, and that included 6,000 more work orders. On top of that, we opened eight new schools.”

Recycling Savings
Recycling is typically considered a way to be environmentally responsible. Now, however, it is also a way to contribute to the maintenance and operations bottom line.

This spring, Garland Independent School District started a single-stream recycling program in conjunction with the city of Garland, which does all of the district’s trash collection. The pilot program was so successful that a full program will be rolled out this fall. So far, the district has eliminated one dump per week of its regular trash. Dufay is hoping that, eventually, 75 percent to 80 percent of its trash will go to a recycling center instead of to a landfill, thus saving the cost of landfill dumps. In addition, he is confident that, once the commodity market recovers, the district will receive rebate checks from recycling.

Similarly, Jefferson County Public Schools is getting paid to recycle the 6,000 computers it replaces every year. Initially, the district was going to send the computers to federal prisons, where they would be recycled for free, except for the $800 cost of the truck to transport them. “Then we found this program,” says Mulheirn. “The computers are taken to a collection point. Then they’re shipped to Raleigh, N.C., where they’re taken apart, and not one piece goes to the landfill. We collect $10 per laptop, although we’re not doing it to make money but to be environmentally responsible.”

No, these maintenance and operations managers are not Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, by following his example, and allowing their teams to exchange ideas and confront challenges in an open environment, they’ve been able to come up with some significant ways to save money while still maintaining high standards. “Make it so.”