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‘Basic needs aren’t being met’: Schools run behind on maintenance

LaTonya Hill is certain her classroom is making her sick.

The Dresden Elementary School special education teacher has spent more than two weeks out of her classroom battling sinus and upper respiratory infections she said were not common before she began working at the school in 2016. At first, she attributed the health problems to working with children who carry a lot of germs. She spent two weeks on bed rest after her second upper respiratory infection of the school year, which began in August. She said she is worried about mold.

“I’ve never had all these problems, and there doesn’t seem to be much (school administrators) can do about it,” said Hill, adding she was advised by school officials to wear a surgical face mask to work.

Of the school’s 29 active maintenance requests, reported to the school district’s operations division, nine are for leaks in classrooms and hallways, or for standing water.

Metro Atlanta schools have more than 10,000 school maintenance requests for hundreds of school buildings across the region, anything from major overhauls for heating and cooling systems to needing soap and other supplies in a school lavatory. The repairs often take a backseat to competing priorities as teacher salaries, retirement benefits and growing administrative staffs take a large chunk of the annual budget, forcing districts to use special, voter-approved tax pots for much-needed maintenance and renovation.

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested lists of active facilities maintenance requests from the largest metro Atlanta school districts. Across the region, still-active maintenance requests vary in size, scope and length of wait. Discarded furniture placed at the back door of Clayton County’s Arnold Elementary School on July 23 needs to be cleaned up. On Oct. 10, someone from DeKalb County’s Sequoyah Middle School requested a mason to patch a wall hole with concrete after a rat ate through the wall. Also on Oct. 10, a leak was reported in the gym at Gwinnett County’s Archer High School.

Elia Kelley, whose daughter attends DeKalb County’s Dunwoody Elementary School, said she did not understand why the school had no soap in its lavatories.

“It’s unreal, so unacceptable,” Kelley said. “You’re spreading germs, and it’s flu season. “Basic needs aren’t being met.”

In late October, DeKalb County School District operations employees were contending with nearly 7,000 facilities maintenance requests. Several thousand of the requests were biannual requests seeking supplies and to check exhaust fans and water heaters. Many were about leaking roofs and air conditioning issues. Interim Chief Operations Officer Dan Drake said requests are prioritized into three categories, the lowest of which should be handled within seven days.

The oldest active maintenance request was annual water heater checks scheduled for July 19, 2017. That’s 483 days ago.

“We’re actively addressing that,” Drake said last month.

Drake said the backlog is a combination of several things, including work orders being cleared before the work is done, regular maintenance requests and items already addressed but not cleared from the system. He said a data-driven approach to handling maintenance requests should help the district better prioritize requests as they come in and update the current list of outstanding work orders.

And he’s going to hold his staff accountable for updated lists and clearing maintenance requests faster.

“I’m putting a lot more attention to … a decentralized process,” Drake said. “I have a hot list of 26 members who are not actively using their phones, and mandatory training set up for them to make sure they’re using the technology. There will be consequences … for them not using their phones. That’s for both facilities maintenance, contractors and plant engineers. I’m asking the regional facilities managers, getting monthly reports to shore up open work orders. Now that they know I’m looking at it, and our facilities administrative staff is looking at it, there’s going to be some accountability baked into that.”

Cobb County Schools has open maintenance requests going back to 2015, including one on Feb. 5, 2015 about a leak in a transportation pump.

“With over 150 technicians, CCSD Maintenance maintains 113 schools and 17 support facilities and receive over 52,000 work orders a year,” the district said in a statement. “Our support staff make sure less than 3 percent are open at any given time.”

On Oct. 24, Cobb County Schools had 1,583 school maintenance requests, more than 3 percent of the annual number. District officials did not respond to questions about school maintenance requests, including the length of time it takes for some requests to be addressed.

Most school districts returned maintenance information within hours, or days. Fulton County Schools officials said it would take two to three weeks to produce records, for $59. Atlanta Public Schools did not return documents requested through its new open records portal.

Clayton County Public Schools has put pressure on itself to shore up any maintenance requests that have languished for long periods of time. Since late spring, the district has addressed more than 11,000 requests, prioritizing based on those that impact student safety.

“Our expectation … is they’re done within a day or two,” said Kemith Thompson, the district’s executive director of operations. “And with an aging infrastructure, we might have to order parts that might take weeks of months. Then, there are life safety events that might prevent us from finishing low-priority (requests).”

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