Nov 12, 2018 Chamblee: A construction dumpster and covered materials are seen at Dekalb County’s Dresden Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Chamblee. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Despite outside help, DeKalb Schools slow to fix maintenance backlog

Three years ago, the DeKalb County School District agreed to pay SCC Service Solutions $5.4 million a year to help resolve a backlog of thousands of maintenance requests each month from schools across the district.

Despite spending more than $11 million with the vendor, the district still can’t keep up with the need. At the end of January, more than 3,300 outstanding requests remained to address issues such as dripping faucets, bad odors, cold rooms and missing bathroom stall doors across the county’s 137 schools.

“Very frustrating,” said Elia Kelley, whose daughter attends Dunwoody Elementary School, where she said the bathrooms went without soap for months before the problem was highlighted in an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall.

When school district officials issued the request to contract with SSC Service Solutions in 2016, they portrayed the move as part of the district’s efforts to decentralize maintenance efforts to “continually improve operational efficiencies and provide for a safe, clean and well managed environment for students, faculty and parents.”

Still, enlisting the company did little to clear up what is a mish-mash of vendors and system employees tasked with various maintenance duties across the district. According to vendor spending reports, dozens of other vendors receive funds for facilities maintenance for various services, including supplies, building maintenance and “other” services. District officials said no list was kept of those who do maintenance work for the district.

In 2017, seeking a one-year contract extension renewal, officials said the maintenance collaboration with SSC Service Solutions resulted in nearly 18,000 completed work orders. It also allowed the district to launch a web-based computerized maintenance system, develop and implement new standard operating procedures and document the conditions of more than 19,300 facility assets and equipment.

Still, the arrangement has done little to clear the backlog, records show. In 2018, officials say they made progress as 41,208 work orders were generated, with 38,941 being resolved, at a completion rate of 94.5 percent. In recent months, however, the district appears to have taken a step back. DeKalb Schools received 13,120 active maintenance requests from September 2018 to January 2019, according to its online maintenance report. But system records show 3,320 requests still outstanding, for a completion rate of about 74.7 percent during those five months.

Interim Chief Operations Officer Dan Drake said last fall he was working on a decentralized maintenance process to better handle requests as they come in, as well as increased accountability when maintenance requests are assigned.

He said the district has a multi-year plan to hire more skilled maintenance employees, which should help speed up the response when schools report something needs fixed.

“Our desire is to get as close to zero as possible,” he said.

Part of the problem is the district isn’t sure of the accuracy of its own maintenance request list. Drake said a significant number the requests may be resolved but still listed as “active” in the system. A pilot program has helped clear up more than 1,000 completed work orders that were listed as open. Officials plan to expand the program across the district with hopes cleaning up its maintenance list and “focusing our limited maintenance staff on open work orders,” he said.

Some have complained hiring outside vendors to address the district’s facilities issues was never the right decision.

DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said vendors don’t have the investment in the district to perform exceptional work or address concerns in a timely manner. SSC Service Solutions, she said, has too much control of the district’s maintenance management processes without enough oversight from district officials.

“We have turned our maintenance people over to them,” she said. “We’re housing them and they’re basically in charge of our computers and systems. They’re managing the workload. I don’t think (the operations divisions) has a handle on things at all.”

One former DeKalb County School District teacher posted pictures of various maintenance issues she said have gone on for years, adding she was fed up for parents whose children have to try and receive an education in deplorable conditions.

Rebekah Cohen Morris, whose children still attend DeKalb schools, posted several dozen photos on Facebook this week of conditions at Cary Reynolds and Montclair elementary schools. She said she wanted to highlight conditions that include missing ceiling tiles, leaking roofs and stall doors missing in a girls bathroom.

“Something immediate has to be done,” she said. “It angers me that parents have to send their babies to sit in schools like Cary Reynolds or Montclair. As a mother, this breaks my heart.”

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