Go, member O, go!

by Loren Martell

The weather was wet and blustery, when I climbed the concrete steps on the 1st Ave. East side of Old Central. Whenever a public meeting is being held, the doors on the east, west and north sides of the building are supposed to (and have always, until recently, been) unlocked.
Finding the door locked again (the fourth time since last June!) I started pounding on it. Eventually — long story short — I made it into the building. When I got up to the second floor, where Board meetings are held, the Business Office secretary was coming down the hallway.
“You’re late!” She said, grinning and poking some fun at one of the few fools who ever shows up for these dreary government events.
“Has there been a rule change regarding public access?” I inquired. “The east door was locked again, and I had to walk around to the back of the building.”
“No — the east and west doors are supposed to be open, too. I don’t know why they keep doing that!”
I don’t know why either! But the evening’s opening experience fits into the theme of this article.

Business Committee meeting, 10/9/18

Member Lofald made an appearance towards the end, but for the entire HR meeting and most of the Business meeting, four Board members — a bare quorum — were present.
School board committee meetings are held a bit more informally than regular monthly meetings. Board members descend from their elevated dais and sit around four tables pushed into a square, so they can look directly at each other while they speak.
For nearly the entire Business Committee meeting, only member Oswald spoke. Member Gorham, filling in for the absent Business Chair — Sally Trnka — assumed several times there was no comment on an agenda item, only to discover the diligent member O had her light on.
Month after month, Alanna Oswald does a commendable job scouring over every detail of the agenda. She points out inconsistensies and errors no one else picks up, like this one: “I see this foster grandparent arrangement between the Catholic Charities and Home Croft (Elementary school) on page 89. It’s bolded and says there will be no additional sites other than Home Croft…but then you scroll to the very next page, and it’s a foster grandparent MOU (memorandum of understanding) for MacArthur Elementary.”

Throughout the Business Committee agenda, member Oswald kept the Superintendent and his staff riffling papers and scrolling through their chrome books with open-mouthed, surprised expressions that verbally translated to: “She’s right, again! How’d she ferret out that?”
I admittedly have a wonky predilection, but I just love watching a public representative do his/her job as a detail-oriented watchdog.

A close look at maintenance

ISD 709’s Facilities Manager, Dave Spooner, is a tall, pleasant-mannered gentleman, with a soft, even-measured voice. He always looks organized, the sort of fellow who dots all of his ‘i’s and carefully crosses every ‘t.’
Spooner’s Facilities Report always comes towards the end of the Business Committee Report, and this evening it was lengthy and led to some extended (and a bit prickly) Board discussion. The longest list of Mr. Spooner’s report was under the heading, “General Maintenance and Operations.” Reading down this list, our capable Facilities Manager first told the Board he’d recently spoken at a Congdon Elementary school PTA meeting, “regarding the rodent issue.” For those of you not following the news as of late, the school grounds have been plagued by an infestation of rats.

So far, thankfully, no children have been eaten or carried away.

Mr. Spooner told the Board he assured the PTA and community members that ISD 709 is “using the safest, most efficient method” to exterminate the unwelcome critters, and that the district is in a “preventative maintenance mode to assure the rodents don’t re-infest.”
Personally, I thought the entire rodent colony should have been live-trapped and transported to Keith Dixon’s property, wherever the cotton-topped hustler is living now.
Another item on Mr. Spooner’s list was a lease agreement for Rockridge School. Again filling in for those of you not following this saga, Rockridge was one of the “excess properties” that was supposed to be sold to pay for the Red Plan.
A special school board meeting, required under State Statute, was held on 5/5/11 to announce the closing of Rockridge, as part of the Red Plan. The following is a sample of the findings and conclusions ratified by the Board’s controlling majority, during the meeting: “The closure of Rockridge Elementary School is necessary and practicable… The Rockridge building and surrounding land has been valued at approximately $1,930,000. If the school district closes Rockridge, it will be able to sell the Rockridge building and surrounding land to reduce the school district’s bonded debt by the sale value. If the school district does not sell the Rockridge building and/or surrounding land, it will not be able to use the proceeds from such sale to pay down the school district’s bonded debt. Instead, the anticipated value of that sale will be drawn from either or both of (1) an additional tax levy; or (2) a reduction from the district’s general fund.”

Obviously we did not garner $1.9 million from the sale. The district was offered nearly a million, but the Board refused to sell and instead borrowed millions (and is currently robbing more out of the general fund) to pay for a remodel so it could lease the property. Many people believe the building was completely fixed up during the remodel, but that is not true. Maintenance-needs still remain, including a shot roof that will yet absorb the better part of a million dollars.

My findings and conclusions: any claim that ISD 709’s fiscal problems are unrelated to the failures of a huge capital investment is certifiably delusional.
The next item on Mr. Spooner’s list demonstrated the unending investments we now face in the modern world. Once upon a time, school doors just needed a lock. Now we have elaborate control access systems. One of the profit-making parts of the Red Plan that stayed largely under the radar is that Johnson Controls installs its own products in these school house schemes. JCI’s access-control system is called the P2000.

The corporate giant just gobbled up two other companies, however — Simplex-Grinnell and Tyco — and has decided to drop its own system and use the system these newly acquired companies have been using: the C-Cure 9000. Johnson Controls’ P2000 system is now unsupported and obsolete, but ISD 709 actually still has to upgrade it (at a cost of $8,900,) so it can be transitioned to the C-Cure 9000.

The good news is that JCI is absorbing $47,500 of the cost, because it needs a guinea pig to give it “user feedback and data to help develop the software user manual,” including how to switch systems effectively. The cost to ISD 709 is still expected to be at least $20,490.
How long before JCI gobbles up another competitor, forces another change, and harvests another ripe profit from school districts across the country?
Mr. Spooner next informed the Board about “some terrazzo issues occurring at Denfeld.” The terrazzo flooring is becoming unattached from the concrete substrata in the new addition to the school--another Red Plan swing-and-miss. The full cost of installing terrazzo is very pricey (nearly $100 per square ft.,) but was justified during the Red Plan’s spending orgy because it would last for many years with minimal repair and maintenance expense. The warranty on this durable product is only one year, so were out of luck, fellow taxpayers.

Another facilities failure, (assumingly unpleasant for all,) was the collapse of an 89-year-old sewer pipe in another of our “new, or like-new” schools: Congdon Elementary. Mr. Spooner informed the Board measures were being taken to repair the pipe (which has been providing a valuable service since 1929) as soon as possible.

One more item from the list was a clear exemplification of the times we live in. Two maintenance employees recently attended ALICE certification training. ALICE stands for: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, and provides training to deal with a (hopefully never-occurring) violent event. The program trains civilians how to take appropriate action in a life-threatening emergency until first-responders arrive.

 Tough job

Being a Facilities Manager in an organization that just ran up a half billion dollar bill on sparkling new facilities would seem to be a plum, smooth-sailing job, but multiple failed promises and the lack of any maintenance funding foresight has actually left Mr. Spooner — a very dedicated, hard-working public employee — on the hot seat.

Under the next heading on his list, “Capital Construction,” Mr. Spooner informed the Board that a building audit will begin shortly on Old Central; that replacement of the track in Denfeld’s Public School Stadium will also be tackled soon; that a refurbishment of the gymnasium at Ordean Middle School is nearly done; and that the Rockridge’s remodel is also nearly complete. Obviously this all adds up to a lot of work for “new and like-new” facilities.

Last spring Mr. Spooner estimated that Old Central needed repairs and renovations totaling $25 million, but some experts are now going to come in, on the taxpayer’s dime, to see for sure what kind of bill we’re looking at. “The Board will have the information it needs to know,” Mr. Spooner said, “to decide: do we invest here, or do we look at alternatives?”

Deferred maintenance has been an expanding price tag ever since the work on Old Central, scheduled as part of the Red Plan, was cancelled to protect JCI’s profit line. Rainwater has leaked through the ceiling during Board meetings and the east entrance was taped off during the recent wind storm, because pieces of junk were flying off the roof.

With our representatives listening, Mr. Spooner kept plowing methodically through his thorough report. He covered a number of other items under two more headings, but I’m just going to focus on “playground inspections completed district-wide,” because this is where the most trenchant debate took place.

 Member Lofald shows up

This business meeting remained rather sedated, nearly to the end. Then a discussion about a field near Homecroft Elementary School livened things up. A number of families with children in the school want to use the field as an additional “green-space” for the kids to play in. The parcel is in a wetlands area, which makes it harder to deal with in bureaucratic terms and also tends to make it WET, really wet — in fact, a soggy, muddy mess a good part of the time.

As has happened before, most recently with the playground rubber mulch issue — where little kids were turning themselves into chimney-sweeps by frolicking in what some considered hazardous black dust — the public is again pressuring a broke and snail-like district to let them roll up their sleeves and help expedite a solution to a problem.

Member Gorham asked if Mr. Spooner or the Superintendent wanted to comment on the situation, and Super G. took the bait: “Our fear is that if we just put some dirt on the field without drainage, the water is still going to be there and it’s still going to be muddy and unusable.” He pointed out that the estimated cost of drainage was three-quarters of a million dollars and the volunteer citizen group can’t raise that kind of cash. He also pointed out the liability risk for the district of using volunteers, “both during the process of the work being done, and the long-term liability as well.”

“How does this project differ from the project that was totally designed and constructed as a natural play space at Lowell (Elementary,) built entirely by parent volunteers?” Member Oswald inquired.
“I honestly still don’t like it (the play space at Lowell.) Mr. Spooner responded. “I still don’t think it’s safe, but it’s as safe as it can be (after being constructed by amateurs.)” Addressing the difference between the two projects, he added: “Homecroft (involves) hundreds of dump trucks dumping fill on our property…and if it doesn’t work, it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars of work that we’d have to do to get back to where we’re at today.”

Mr. Spooner, seldom confrontational, then added with emphasis: “I don’t want to take on a project that might not work, because I don’t want--come next June or July, just like I was at Congdon, when there were rodents — I don’t want to be standing in mud on TV explaining why I’m standing in mud, and I didn’t have any input on how it was designed.”

Member O duly acknowledged these legitimate concerns, before commenting: “I would really appreciate some communication between the two groups involved (the district and the would-be volunteers,) obviously.” She looked at the Superintendent: “I really wish that you guys would sit down in the same room and figure out how this moves forward--or doesn’t…” She pointed out that “this is a volunteer thing,” and ISD 709 is often wanting for volunteers. “And then, people say, ‘Well, I tried to volunteer, and we (the district) shut them down,’ and that’s not good for our reputation, either.”

Mr. Spooner countered: “If I’m going to do my job and do it diligently for the district, I’m going to direct design professionals to put plans together for a building or a field that is going to last for 50 years. On any project, donations are welcome — they’re always appreciated — but donations need to be given monetarily.”

More discussion circled around the tables, then member Lofald, who’d just arrived fifteen minutes or so earlier, turned on her microphone and overtly expressed her displeasure at member O’s line of questioning.
“I think it’s a poor pre — ” She seemed to try to say the word ‘precedent,’ but couldn’t quite get it out and instead said, “Yeah! Now I forgot my train of thought because, in a way, I’m just so blown away by our Board’s passions getting kind of in the way of listening to our experts…As much as we want to support the volunteers at Homecroft, they also have to understand that there’s precedence and policy and things to do and I just feel like we as a Board need to make sure that we don’t always get so integrated into their problems. You — ” looking at member Oswald, “have adopted this project as — ” Leaving the sentence unfinished, she added: “Well, it sounds like it — you are just so adamant…”

In a calm and rational voice, member Oswald responded that all she was seeking was for the district and the volunteers “to find a common vision on this project. That’s all I want, so that the parents don’t walk away all upset and the district doesn’t have to be mad that they’re trying to do something we don’t want them to do.”

Poor relations with the public (often literally or figuratively locked out) combined with a puppet Board rubberstamping “expert” advice is what led the district into its current mess, so I’m motivated to raise an encouraging cheer:
Go, member O, go! Please keep asking your intelligent, probing questions whenever you deem they are warranted.