Preparing for Fall During the Summer

Ah, summer — the time when students are home from school for 12 luxurious weeks. Families pile in their cars for vacations on the beach, at Grandma’s, at a national park or, if they’re really lucky, at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The concept is idyllic — unless you’re a school facilities manager, that is. In that case, you know you’ll never get a summer vacation, simply because there are so many projects to be completed.

And, while those projects have to be completed so schools are functional and presentable for the all-important beginning of the school year, it’s truly misleading to think that facility managers have a full 12 weeks in which to complete everything they have planned. After the school year officially ends, teachers need a few days to wrap up. Then, administrative staff members return to work several weeks before the start of the new school year to ensure everything gets off to a strong start.

Similarly, while it’s a high priority to tackle exterior projects — roofing, landscaping, asphalt repair/replacement — while the weather’s warm, a higher priority is tackling any project that would otherwise interfere with the education process. What projects, then, do facility managers undertake, and how on earth they squeeze them all in?

“For our district, it’s a mix of small-scale capital improvement projects and large-scale renovation projects,” says Keith Webb, director of Plant Services for Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) in Virginia, which educates 30,500 students in five early childhood centers, 25 elementary schools, eight middle schools, five high schools and various other locations. “In February, I make a master list of what I want to accomplish in the summer.”

One project that facility managers, including Webb, undertake is deep cleaning buildings, such as stripping and refinishing floors. “We do a lot of flooring work during the summer because it’s really disruptive,” he says. “A great number of our floors are covered with asbestos tile, and that may even have been covered over with carpet. In order to replace the carpet, you have to abate the asbestos under it.”

After deep cleaning comes the renovation projects, as Webb already mentioned. Last summer, he replaced doors, noting that it wasn’t a wholesale replacement of every door, but 12 at this school, 14 at that school and so on. In addition, he replaced lighting in three gymnasiums, and he replaced 11 water coolers. Locker repairs are tackled every year — everything from fixing what’s broken to tearing them out and installing new because they’re irreparably damaged.

Mike Mulheirn, executive director of Facilities and Transportation for Jefferson County Public Schools (Jeffco) in Louisville, which boasts 98,000 students in 90 elementary schools, 24 middle schools, 21 high schools and 20 other learning centers, tackles similar renovation projects, including ceilings, lights and windows, which are designed to make schools function better  — “Those projects get jammed in around the capital improvement projects,” he notes.

Rob Dreier, director of Building Infrastructure for Lake Oswego School District (LOSD) in Oregon, which has 6,763 students in 13 schools, has his hands full with capital improvement projects. “We look at capital projects, those that are more than $5,000 versus standard maintenance/repair projects,” he says. “This is a pretty low threshold when you consider how much materials and labor cost.” Last summer, district officials replaced storm water collection pipes. This summer, they will work on the sewer system, replacing a section of pipe between two manholes.

And this summer, LOSD will take apart portions of a hallway in order to reach and repair a drain. “Above this area is an outdoor plaza with a seismic joint,” Dreier explains. “That’s where a leak has occurred. It is a newer school, and it appears that the leak has been there since the school opened, but it’s been long enough ago that we can’t prove the contractor did it. We’re finishing the project documents now.”

Dreier successfully manages his summer projects through planning. “You definitely have to spend a reasonable amount of time planning a project so that, when you implement it, you know all of the knowns,” he says. “And, to some degree, you know the potential unknowns and are ready to address them as they come up.”

Dreier also advises that managing your consultants ensures success. “Most people form relationships with their consultants as though they’re your best friends,” he says. “In reality, they’re your hired best friends. The key is to manage the projects you’re asking of them, not manage what they think you’re asking. If you don’t have a good sense of what the consultants are doing, the project won’t meet your expectations, and the consultants and contractors aren’t responsible other than that there was a communication gap.”

Mulheirn, too, appreciates the value of communication. “Here, everyone knows what’s going on in everyone else’s department so no one can act independently,” he explains. “Plus, we try to make early decisions. For example, we hire our consultants this summer for projects we’ll complete next summer so that the projects can be designed and bid early in the calendar year.”

Excellent communication and early planning definitely go a long way to ensuring facilities and grounds are properly spruced up during the summer. Two things that don’t go such a long way are time and money. “We really don’t have the resources or time to inspect all of our facilities and see what needs to be done,” says Dreier. “We recognize that we have roofs that are getting older, but they’re still under warranty. So we have a couple of minor roof patches, but generally, the roofs are in good condition during this rainy season. The work varies from year to year, and it’s all influenced by the environment we’re in.”

To help stretch both time and money, LOSD uses a work order system to identify facility issues. Work orders are evaluated by whether the work needs to be done and then by whether the order is a capital project or deferred maintenance. “We look at things from a level of importance,” Dreier says, “and projects that influence fire/life safety come first. Our focus is on putting as much money in the classroom as possible to have high-performing schools. We work hard to have that educational excellence.”

Working hard sometimes means figuring out how to accomplish a mammoth project during the summer. The experts proudly share their success stories.

Last summer, NNPS administrators discovered one school had ceiling tiles with asbestos in them. “We had already tested for asbestos, and the tests came back negative, but we had not tested the right places,” Webb describes. “We undertook the challenge of replacing 70,000 square feet in one summer. The day school let out, we relocated staff, and began tearing out the ceiling, lighting and ceiling-mounted items like projectors. We mandated that all the contractors work 24 hours a day to ensure the project was done by the start of the school year.” He notes that, while they were at it, they replaced all the floor coverings: “They were going to take a beating as a result of removing the ceiling, and they already had some age on them,” he explains.

For the renovation of the district’s central stadium, Webb spread the work across two summers. A year ago, there were additions to the concession stand and field house, masonry inspection and repairs, and painting. “This summer, we’re going to demolish the track, remove the football field and regrade it to address drainage issues, expand and repair the irrigation system, lay new sod and install a new track,” he says. “It has to be back online by August 25 for the first football game.”

Webb’s key to success is staying on top of the projects. “You can’t start a project and sit at your desk and assume everything is going as it should,” he says. “You have to have someone checking on it all the time. If you let a project run on its own inertia, you’ve forsaken the outcome.”

Mulheirn takes the same approach. “We have three inspectors who are on the job every day, monitoring the projects,” he says. “They’re there to help the projects run more smoothly — are there enough hangers on that pipe? Is that motor facing the right direction? They fix things at the lowest possible level so we don’t have problems later.”

And Mulheirn’s mammoth project success story is that he has developed a reputation for challenging his staff to complete HVAC replacements in large schools in one summer, as opposed to two. “The good news is we’ve been air conditioned for 40 years. And the bad news is that we’ve been air conditioned for 40 years,” he jokes. “Our systems are flat worn out, and our biggest challenge is HVAC replacement projects.

“We did an $11-million, 300,000-square-foot school in one summer,” Mulheirn continues. “In that first case, we had excellent designers and contractors. This is now our seventh summer of HVAC replacements, and we’ve become quite good at it — it’s like a military operation.” He also notes that the projects are chipped away at both ends: old boilers are removed during spring break, new boilers are installed through the summer and they’re operating by October.

Mulheirn’s key to success is hiring the best workforce, which he’s able to do by operating a tight department. He makes sure he has solid and robust specifications and construction documents that are easy to interpret. He has a streamlined bidding process and makes sure contractors are paid in a timely manner. “These policies help us on the fast-paced jobs where the work has to be done right the first time,” he observes. “And they allow us to be the client everybody wants to work for.”

Ah, summer. Even though facility managers don’t have the benefit of an idyllic summer vacation, they do have the satisfaction of seeing the completion of many maintenance projects and knowing that they’ve prepared their schools for the new year. And, there’s always Thanksgiving break….