David Peterson is director of operations for Mesa Unified School District No. 4 in Arizona, where for five of his nine years with the district, he served as director of construction. In our interview, Peterson talks about the usefulness of portables, in-house custodial services, key control, and his tough approach to vandalism.
His current responsibilities include managing a staff of 600 employees who carry out the maintenance, grounds care, custodial, and facility planning tasks, as well as all the district’s environmental issues. Mesa school district is Arizona’s largest public school district, covering an area of 200 square miles with 10 million square feet of education space. There are 86 schools serving 76,000 students.
I met with Mr. Peterson at the CraigMichaels K-12 Facilities Summit in Tampa, Fla., last fall where he was a featured speaker covering the topic of energy conservation.
Hava Leisner: How does your role as director of operations differ from your prior role as director of construction?
David Peterson: As director of construction, I was responsible for the main planning and designing construction activities and renovations. On moving to director of operations I took the planning part of that job with me, but I am also now responsible for custodial maintenance and grounds. I do the main planning, I put together the overall renovation plans, new construction, the sites, and then I turn it over to the construction department that actually does the on-site inspections and construction.
We’re a little bit different in Mesa. In 1999 I was able to get an ordinance passed that makes us responsible for all the construction plan review and permits and inspections so we don’t have to go through the city. A lot of school districts that have to go through the city or county plan reviews have a lot of problems. We’ve been very fortunate that the city council approved us moving in that direction and being our own authority. It speeds the process up by months.
We’ve suggested that same ordinance to other school districts so that they can streamline their processes.
HL: Currently, what is one of your greatest challenges as director of operations?
DP: I think money is a huge issue, as it is with every school district. I think one of the other issues we have in Mesa is that we’re growing but at the same time we are an older school district. We have a lot of facilities that need to be brought up to par with newer facilities; we don’t want parents upset that some kids get to go to brand new schools with all the latest technology while other kids are in older schools that lack technology and infrastructure. It is tough to make sure you keep that balance and make sure you take care of all the kids.
HL: In some situations it is more affordable to build new than to remodel. Does your district lean one way or the other?
DP: Our leaning is probably to not totally remove or demolish a school and build it back, although my gut feeling tells me sometimes we should do that. There are a lot of people who went to a school and now their grandkids go there and because of that they don’t want that school demolished or removed. They want you to renovate it but at the same time expand it. You have to look at what land is available; it is very tough if the building is on a condensed site because you don’t want to wipe out a playground.
We’ve been somewhat successful with our growth. At one time we had 550 portables, and the portables are two-classroom, modular buildings. As growth happens, we’d move them into an area, then we’d work on the school, and then we’ll be able to move them out. That was one of the ways I’m handling the growth, we had a couple of years where we grew 5,000 students a year. It was pretty difficult to try to build that many schools all at once, so we used portables.
We’ve had some areas where the neighborhood grew up, the kids moved away, the population in the schools dropped off, and then we were able to remove the portables. If we had built a school there and left it, the school would probably be about half-full at this point and we would be talking about closing it.
HL: How often do you relocate the portables?
DP: We relocate the portables quite a bit. We typically move 30 to 40 portables a year to other schools, at the minimum. We’ve had situations where we’ve built new schools and thought they were appropriately large and all of a sudden more people showed up. We had to move portables on to those brand new campuses to try to help with the growth. It is a chore to move them but it also allows you flexibility. We had a school that, a few years ago, had 1,000 kids in it and this year it has 620 kids. That was an example where I moved probably eight portables off that campus.
HL: So, in that sense, portables are really helpful?
DP: For us the portables have been very helpful. Now some of the portables are starting to age and part of what we did with the School Facilities Board, which is somewhat new to Arizona, is we negotiated with them. There is a formula for taking care of buildings called the Buildings Renewal Formula that takes into consideration the building’s age and student population. Based on that you get a certain amount of money. In that funding formula, portables get about six times the amount of money as a regular brick-and-mortar building.
HL: Because of the lifespan?
DP: Because of the lifespan and their construction techniques and because of moving them. Some of the portables stay a little longer than anticipated so we adjust for that, and where we see much more stable populations we want to put permanent buildings. This past year we negotiated with the state School Facilities Board and we replaced 105 portables-which is 210 classrooms-with regular brick-and-mortar-type buildings. That project went very well. The project was approximately $19 million and ended up affecting almost 18 campuses. When you look at the actual classroom count, it is the equivalent of building seven elementary schools, so it was pretty impressive.
HL: I read that last summer the School Facilities Board put a stop or temporary hold on close to 180 deficiency corrections projects, which I believe is renovation work.
DP: That is correct.
HL: How did that affect you and how many deficiency projects did they find?
DP: District-wide, we approved about 360 to 370 deficiency projects. This year  the board implemented a preventative maintenance program along with building renewal allowing you to spend eight percent of your building renewal money on preventative maintenance, so that’s pretty good.
The deficiency money was where the state developed a set of guidelines and minimum standards. A school should have a certain amount of square feet per student, a certain light level, its mechanical systems should be able to maintain certain temperatures, the structure should have life to it, the roofing should have a minimum amount of roofing life to it, and those things. Then, based on those guidelines, the state evaluated all the schools in its 226 school districts. The results enabled them to come up with what they termed deficiency corrections. Their original estimate was about $900 million; it ended up going to about $1.3 billion dollars. Just for deficiency corrections.
In order to balance the budget this past year the state needed to make up $100 million. What they did was they went to three school districts-Mesa was one of them, Tucson and Glendale were the other two-and they said you are going to have to come up with $16.6 million worth of projects you can defer so that we can add that into the total to make up the $100 million. We are assured that, come July, the projects will be funded so we can finally get them done. A total of about 180 projects were deferred.
HL: What kinds of projects are those?
DP: The majority are lighting retrofits, air conditioning-mechanical retrofits, and roofing. Those are the majority; we do have some miscellaneous things in there. We have some walk-in coolers/freezers in kitchens that need to be replaced; and we have some old, old dishwashers in kitchens that have to be replaced.
HL: Is there a specific number of portables you like to have cached or just have to operate effectively?
DP: We still have about 430 portables and we’re never going to get away from them.
HL: So is 430 the number that your district needs?
DP: No, we could probably use a few more. But the state is trying to discourage the use of portables; they want more permanent buildings, which is understandable. There have been some areas where they just bought portables and haven’t taken very good care of them and the portables just don’t last. Although the portable manufacturers may tell you they do, the truth from our experience is they do not stand up as well, especially when you’re moving them and doing the things we do with them.
HL: Tell me about grounds management. What turf issues you contend with in the desert? Do you use a lot of artificial turf?
DP: We don’t use artificial but there are lots of issues, obviously. We use Bermuda grass so that as we move into the time of the year where temperatures start dipping below 60 degrees the Bermuda goes dormant.
Another big issue is the way we get our water, and we have a fair amount of salt so you have to deal with the salt issue. When you try and condition the soil you’ve got to be very careful because if you condition it with calcium you end up almost having a layer of gypsum board in your soil which is very tough.
Right now Arizona is in a seven-year drought so water is a critical issue. We had somewhat of a contentious time with planting winter rye this year because it consumes a significant amount of water. A lot of district schools plant winter rye as the traditional Bermuda grass goes dormant. We decided we were not going to plant winter rye this year except in our varsity softball and baseball fields. I even disagreed with that but was overruled.
In fact, by not over seeding all the other fields-the football fields, the soccer fields, the schools themselves, and the front lawns-we are going to save about 25 million gallons of water. That is pretty significant.
I think it’s also important that the school district leads the charge; a lot of developers are seeing that not planting winter rye is the right thing to do to save water. Our reservoirs right now are at only 40 percent capacity.
HL: Why not try artificial turf?
DP: Several reasons. One, the up front cost is pretty expensive. I don’t think the performance is there, especially in a high school arena, or a junior high arena. I don’t think the artificial turf is the way to go.
HL: Do you outsource ground management or custodial services?
DP: No, we do all of that in-house. We tried a few years back as a prototype with custodial services and it was not successful. It was almost a disaster. Part of what we found with custodial was we wanted a million dollars worth of service but only wanted to pay $500,000 for it-and you get what you pay for. We did not get the services the district expected.
HL: Do you use a CMMS? Custodial alone seems like a huge undertaking.
DP: Custodial is huge. I have about 400 custodians working for me. Custodial is a big issue for multiple reasons. First of all, custodial has our highest employment turnover.
Training is also an issue, with the chemicals, the hazardous waste issues, the blood borne pathogens, and just the basics of cleaning. Each custodian is probably responsible for about 28,000 to 30,000 square feet, which is well above the typical standards for custodial cleaning.
HL: What are they typically?
DP: Typically its about 18,000 to 22,000 square feet. We also have a carpet crew that does nothing but clean carpets. It is continual.
HL: Is there anything you feel other districts could learn from your schools?
DP: We have a computerized work order system that works very well. I review every work order request everyday. Typically I get about 180 to 200 work order requests daily. Some things I just cannot approve, and the system allows the schools to see that right away. Some requests fall under the heading of capital or major renovations and I can program those items into next year’s budget.
HL: What would be an example of those items?
DP: I’ve had principals ask to have their whole school painted, one work order at a time. But I go through them and can see what they are doing.
HL: How do you address vandalism?
DP: We fight vandalism pretty aggressively. Our policy is to prosecute. We’ve recouped a lot of money for the district by doing that.
HL: Do you include theft under vandalism?
DP: We have theft, we have broken windows, we have people pulling sinks off the walls, we have graffiti, we have all kinds of areas that vandalism takes place.
The hardest thing we have to deal with is lost keys. We have a very good system of key control in the district, but it is very difficult when a teacher loses a key. It costs several thousand dollars to rekey a school; a high school will cost $10,000 to rekey. There is just no way to adequately take care of that. What we do is we charge the teachers $25, as a kind of a token effort, and I’ve had teachers get really upset with me about it. I go out and talk with them and show them what the actual costs are and then they understand. Key control is probably our toughest area to deal with.