Support Your Support Services!

Balancing your district’s ability to provide high-quality educational services while providing superior maintenance support services can be a juggling act. It shouldn’t be! There is a significant body of research available that clearly indicates that the physical environment plays a significant role in student learning and organizational well-being. So how do we start balancing our priorities?

Begin with the end in mind, and stay focused! Your organization must know what is important from a physical plant standpoint, and that starts with your top-level management. The superintendent and business manager must understand the research and how critical a good physical plant is to student learning. The physical plant manager and business manager must be able to routinely communicate this information to your governing body. Without this knowledge, balancing resource allocations between teaching and learning and support services will not occur.

So much for telling you all what you probably already know! The question is: How do we do that? Here at Roseburg Public Schools, we do that by having a great working relationship and spending time sharing what we do and how we do it with our staff and our board. Our business office staff and physical plant support staff meet regularly to talk about infrastructure and physical plant needs. And not just in the office. We go to the buildings. We look at parking and busing issues. We look at the flooring and paint condition. Yes, we occasionally even look at the boilers and HVAC systems, but I admit, I can’t tell how they work by looking at them.

Understand folks. The business manager should be your friend, not your enemy. If they are not on your side right now, you need to make the effort to get them there. Sometimes bean counters (yes that’s me) need a little coaxing to get out and see what things look like and why we need to spend money on them.

During our meetings, the physical plant manager (PPM) brings in our work order recap for the latest period along with year-to-date information. We review how many work orders are being created and the percentage of completion. We also review the number of work orders per maintenance FTE that are getting done. Making sure we have sufficient staff to do the work is key in our business. That’s not always easy to do during budget downturns, but we have managed it pretty successfully to date.

The PPM, not the business office, also provides current period costs and year-to-date actual expenditures compared to our annual budget. It makes it clear to the business manager and our organization that the PPM is managing the work and the cost. After all, it is the PPM’s job to oversee the maintenance operation. My job is to make sure we adequately support the program through the budget process. Sharing this routine with other administrative staff also helps during budget time. We share information with building leaders monthly, and our board at least quarterly.

The PPM and the business manager attend monthly board sub-committee meetings to review current physical plant operations as well as intermediate and long-term needs for the district. If we don’t tell them, no one will. And our board does understand how important our buildings are to our operation. That is also critical. Keep them informed.

Sometimes your organizational structure creates obstacles that get in the way of a successful working relationship. Our organizational chart is pretty flat, and we like it that way. Our COO serves as the business manager. All of our support services management reports directly to the COO. While the department manager’s work is critical to our efficiency, the “buck” stops at the COO’s office, and that keeps our business office engaged in helping each support activity be successful. After all, its really hard for me say maintenance or custodial is not measuring up when, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately my responsibility.

During difficult budget times, it is easy to make your first reductions to support services. Not only is that the wrong approach, it can be devastating in the long run. While we have not been able to invest much in major maintenance over the last few years, we have actually increased our regular and preventive maintenance programs to ensure that our physical plant can serve the needs of our students now and in the future. If your buildings are not safe, well-lit, adequately heated and rainproof, it will affect your students’ success.

So, sit down in the business manager’s office and have a chat. Ask them to go for a ride. Talk to them about what you are doing. Maybe even tell them how important you believe that work is. Here in Roseburg, we know how important that work is, and we know our district is better because of it! 

Dennis J. Randolph is the Physical Plant manager for Roseburg Public Schools in Roseburg, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected].