Critical Issues: San Diego City Schools

Dec. 29, 2004

At Issue:

› Bond Referendums

› Maintenance Budgets

› Communications Outreach

Maintaining more than 14 million square feet of space; providing 138,000-plus students with safe, comfortable learning environments; keeping up with more than 200 school and support sites: The numbers alone sound daunting. Being the second-largest school district in California – and one of the 10 largest districts in the United States – offers its own set of challenges. But Jim Watts, district architect for San Diego City Schools’ Facilities Management Branch, and the dedicated district team have found ways to maintain order and manage some of their most pressing issues.

Besides fielding the typical responsibilities of their department, the professionals involved in the Facilities Management Branch are engrossed in a capital facilities program – Proposition MM. A $1.5-billion bond measure split between work on existing facilities and new construction, this plan will help San Diego City Schools modernize 161 existing school sites and build 15 new schools. “We have sort of a unique situation in San Diego right now,” explains Watts. “We’ve been in a growth mode since 1980. From 1980 to 2000, all we did was grow. But, we peaked in 2000, and now we’re starting to decline. It’s not a precipitous decline, but it is a decline. In some ways, I view [this] as an opportunity … to realign our facilities, which include 2,700 portable classrooms, and [dispose] of some of our oldest buildings so we don’t have to keep maintaining them.”

Obtaining adequate maintenance budgets is a critical issue that Watts deals with annually. As a response, the district is moving toward “site-based budgeting,” which gives each school site more control over its operational budget for certain items. “They can decide how much custodial service they want to ‘buy,’ [for example],” explains Watts. “There’s a certain ratio that we need to keep – or that we typically want to keep – in the classroom, [but] the sites are going to be able to determine more and more how those resources are allocated. Site-by-site, a principal and his or her governance team get to make those decisions. We’re providing the level of service to meet what they want.” Another way Watts is addressing maintenance budgets? “We’ve gone into greater detail [with] site assessments – assessing mechanical systems, lighting systems, window systems, roofing systems district-wide – so that we can put together a more comprehensive plan. The next step is convincing our board that we need the proper resources allocated.”

As with any school district – and almost any organization nationwide – Watts is faced with limited resources to maintain San Diego City Schools’ facilities. “We’ve had to make some pretty draconian cuts – for example, releasing two-thirds of our landscape workers last year. At the same time, we’re still designing and [are] going to be building new schools,” he says. In response to restricted resources, providing supervisors with a broader span of control has allowed the department to reduce its number of supervisory staff members. Instead of replacing a retiree, for example, resources are consolidated and existing supervisors are given the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities. Staff augmentation is another opportunity Watts and the facilities team have taken advantage of when allocating resources.  In the case of the Proposition MM bond measure, Watts indicates that a combination of staff augmentation and “staffing up in-house” was the right answer.

With a school district as big as San Diego’s, and considering the extra square footage that Proposition MM will add, the department has hired two full-time staff members to “get the word out” about their work. “It took us a couple of years to get this smart – but we finally realized that we needed to have a much more coordinated communications plan and communications outreach. We want to lay the groundwork for a future facilities bond, and we want that to be based on us doing a good job,” says Watts.

Taking advantage of available technology is another subject Watts and his team are addressing head-on. They just finished switching out ceiling-mounted classroom television sets (which can be hazardous in a California earthquake) and installed overhead projection systems – it’s safer for building occupants and addresses educators’ requests for larger television screens. In addition, the team has implemented a computer-aided facilities management program district-wide. “Now we can keep track of all the square footage, with an interactive graphic interface. It’s been a struggle just to get all of our sites in, and then [enter] the additional square footage that we’re providing under [Proposition MM]. But now that we’ve got that, we’re looking at how we can build on it – add more fields, track more information – to be able to better manage our facilities.”

The numbers may still sound daunting – but in the face of budget constraints and tight resources, Watts and the district’s facilities team are finding ways to produce results.

Leah B. Garris, Associate Editor ([email protected])

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