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July 4, 2015

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Time, budget cuts taking a toll on Clark County schools

Budget cuts eat away at district’s maintenance budget, which means buildings are getting the TLC they need

Building the Golden Gate Bridge was a breathtaking accomplishment, but keeping it painted, clean and crack-free are all important, too, if ho-hum.

It’s not for nothing that in the world of carpenters, painters, roofers, air-conditioning specialists, plumbers and other craftsmen, the saying is: Pay Me Now or Pay Me More Later.

So it is with the 356 schools — more than a third over two decades old — that are cleaned, cooled and repaired by the Clark County School District.

Spread over an area the size of Delaware and Connecticut combined, the schools are at risk because of current and imminent budget cuts, depleted funds from a big construction bond and relentless Father Time amid brutal summers.

The immediate future is worrisome, said Paul Gerner, chief of school construction and maintenance. “You’ll have more roofs that leak, you’ll have more days without air conditioning and you can’t operate schools,” he said. “It’s mission critical.”

Consider:

• In overall maintenance, San Diego’s school district spends $3.12 a square foot; Houston’s school district spends $2.08; and Clark County $1.50.

• By the standards of the Association of Physical Plant Administrators, a trade group, Clark County should have 1,360 maintenance staffers. It has a third that number, 456.

• The district is skimping on painting buildings, spreading it out over 17 years, instead of the usual 10.

Clark County isn’t alone. Almost every public school district of any size is in similar straits. As far back as 1983, the American Association of School Administrators, a trade group representing nearly 14,000 school districts with 50 million students, has been lobbying for more federal aid to help local schools with upkeep with little success, said Bruce Hunter, the group’s chief lobbyist.

“It gets worse every year,” he said. “People do the easy thing, turning the thermostat up or down, not fixing the doors that don’t close right, lengthening the bus routes. It happens with every recession, but this one has been very long and very severe.”

But, with the possible exception of Utah’s school districts, Clark County’s upkeep is one of the most efficient in the country, Hunter said. “Wow,” he said, chuckling, when told some of the figures in this article. “That is beyond lean.”

Gerner is a former company commander in the Seabees (CBs, or construction battalions), the building shock-troops of the U.S. Navy. The Seabees’ motto is “Construimus Batuimus” (“We Build, We Fight”). Their unofficial motto: “Can Do!”

His annual maintenance and grounds budget is relatively small, about $52 million out of a $2.2 billion School District budget. That’s equal to a bit more than 2 cents of every budget dollar.

Thanks to the area’s population growth and, therefore, school construction over the past decade, a third of the buildings are new and nearly all are in good shape.

Of the district’s 356 schools, 112 are less than 10 years old; 97 are 10 to 20 years old, and the remaining 147 are more than 20 years, some dating to the late 1950s.

It’s the last group that worries Gerner the most.

“Here’s where we get to the perfect storm,” he said. “For 20 years, this community has enjoyed a robust capital program of renewal and modernization and system replacement. That money has phhht. It’s tailed off to … very small.”

With the recession, the Legislature ordered severe budget cuts of more than $385 million in school spending in the past three years.

Luckily, that happened while there was still money from a 1998 construction bond, which produced cash flow of $5.1 billion.

Now, nearly all of that money has been spent, and double-digit cuts are possible when the Legislature tries to close a projected $3 billion budget deficit.

Politicians like to defer maintenance because the effects aren’t seen immediately as are firefighter and police layoffs.

The not-so-long term is also worrisome. Gerner said the majority of School District buildings, if allowed to deteriorate, would need major repairs by 2022.

“It’s a blink,” Gerner said. “And, to me, it’s a horrifying prospect that we would take as fine a community asset as this fleet of school buildings and potentially let them go on that kind of course.”

One glimpse: the Southeast Career Technical Academy, an 1,800-student magnet school. Situated on a hill off Mountain Vista Drive, near Whitney Ranch, the school is almost a half-century old and specializes in fields such as automotive technology, cosmetology and welding.

Gerner’s department had been monitoring the second-floor slabs of the main building, which houses 40 classrooms, since the early part of the decade. The problem might be a long-ago flaw in the concrete mix.

The weakness is subtle: The floor sags about 2 1/2 inches.

Worst-case scenario for the academy would be an earthquake that would roil the building and perhaps crack a ceiling.

“It’s not that every 1965 building is a bad building,” Gerner said. “I don’t know what the inspection regime was back then, but it’s a completely different world now.”

In July, the main building was closed as a precaution and 40 portable classrooms were set up in less than six weeks, barely in time for the first day of school, Aug. 30.

Richard Arguello, the school’s principal, said 600 students were displaced, mainly for programs in health sciences and business information technology. Students will not be able to move back anytime soon; the flawed building is to be demolished.

“We still have the same outstanding teachers,” Arguello said. “So our programs continue.”

Twelve other buildings from that era are on Gerner’s watch list, but all are safe, including the academy, he said.

“They are old buildings that were built fast and cheap in the 1960s that are deteriorating to the point that it is more cost-effective to replace them,” Gerner said. But there is no money for that.

Meanwhile, Gerner said his staff are hustling to maintain the existing physical plant. How?

“You’ve got a lot of guys trying to cover a lot of ground,” he said. They use specialized equipment such as an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner in a backpack. By industry standards, a custodian during an eight-hour shift should be able to cover more than 28,000 square feet. In Clark County, a custodian covers about 33,000 square feet.

In the last comprehensive survey of School District operations in 2006, the maintenance department was “commended for utilizing an effective team cleaning program.”

But the survey found that the maintenance department “lacks sufficient custodial staffing to achieve consistently high standards of cleaning buildings.”

The survey noted only 64 percent of principals rated the condition of their buildings as “good” or “excellent,” and only 52 percent of teachers agreed.

That was before the budget cuts of the past three years.

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