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Originally published Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle school district defers maintenance

Seattle Public Schools employees put in about 400 requests a week for basic maintenance: faulty equipment, leaky plumbing, burned-out lights...

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle Public Schools employees put in about 400 requests a week for basic maintenance: faulty equipment, leaky plumbing, burned-out lights and other small projects. In a given week, only about 100 get fixed.

And while district officials say health and safety issues are always a priority, just last week lead-based paint was flaking onto the playground at Van Asselt Elementary School — a problem the district identified 10 years ago. And in December, at Nathan Hale High, a partially blocked drain contributed to the extensive flooding that closed the school for four days.

Officials say two failed levies in the 1990s, along with major cuts to the district's maintenance budget, have saddled it with a backlog of thousands of maintenance projects. Worse, the district's 6,100-item database is so outdated, officials don't know exactly what fixes are needed or what's already been done.

A 2006 report pegged the total repair bill for all 100-plus buildings at $485 million. About $100 million worth of that work will be paid for with last year's capital levy. The deferred maintenance has "had the effect of moving the district to only the highest-priority items addressed," said School Board member Michael DeBell. "I think the appearances of the buildings have suffered, and something that is not necessarily immediate or health-and-safety issues still should get done. A lot of that work can only be put off so long before it becomes a health-and-safety issue."

In September, longtime maintenance supervisor Ed Heller left the district. At a School Board work session last month, Don Kennedy, the district's chief financial and operating officer, said "leadership" was partly to blame for the maintenance backlog. In November, the district hired Mark Pflueger to head its maintenance department.

For next school year's maintenance budget, officials have requested $600,000, plus 30 more employees, be added to this year's $8.9 million and 99-person staff. That would be the largest maintenance budget the district has had since its 2002 budget crisis, after which it cut maintenance spending by a third.

"What we have as a consequence is extremely limited resources available to service our buildings in a manner that we would want them serviced," said Facilities Director Fred Stephens.

Request on hold for years

At Van Asselt Elementary School on South Beacon Hill, students have recess alongside the school's "old building" — a 1909 wooden structure wedged between portables and the playground. The blue exterior paint is peeling off in sheets, and a janitor at the school said a request to repaint the school has been pending for years.

District documents show that officials have known since at least 1997 that the paint contains lead. After a Seattle Times reporter visited the school last week, the district ordered an updated test of the paint on the wall and on the ground. The tests showed the paint contained up to 30 percent lead, above the federal standard of 0.06 percent.

Children are at risk for lead poisoning if they eat paint chips or dust from paint chips that contain lead, or lick their fingers after they play with or touch certain products that are coated with lead-based paint. Lead poisoning in children is associated with behavioral problems, learning disabilities and growth retardation, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

District spokesman David Tucker couldn't explain why the lead paint hadn't been taken care of sooner, although he said lead paint is common on old buildings and isn't a problem until it begins to peel. The district on Friday sent a letter home to families informing them the paint chips would be cleaned up immediately and the building repainted this summer.

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"Once we saw there were paint chips that were lead-based, those will be removed on an ongoing basis," Tucker said.

The district has estimated it will cost $73,000 to paint the Van Asselt building, but last spring bumped it off the maintenance list onto a list of projects being considered for the 2010 school levy.

Over the past several years at Van Asselt, the district has replaced the roof and flooring and fixed windows and broken bathroom-door locks. But it hasn't blocked access to the roof, which has been subject to vandalism, and tetherball poles on the playground are in bad shape.

The 1997 test also showed lead-based paint at Stevens Elementary on north Capitol Hill, but Stevens has since been rebuilt.

A $700,000 cleaning bill

Flooding at Nathan Hale High School in early December might have been prevented with routine maintenance on the courtyard drain. Heavy rains overwhelmed the rooftop and courtyard drains and flooded classrooms with several inches of water, closing the school for four days.

After the flooding, the district sent a camera down the drain and discovered a blockage about 65 feet into the line. Stephens said the district had no way of knowing the drain was blocked. It will be fixed during a planned renovation at Nathan Hale. In the meantime, the district has spent more than $700,000 cleaning up classrooms and repairing water damage.

DeBell said checking lines should be part of regular maintenance.

"A maintenance issue is to check your downspouts, gutters and underground drains annually, typically in the fall," he said. "Those are part of the responsibility of keeping up your buildings."

Heller, the former maintenance director, said the district checks annually only the drains it knows to be problematic.

Tim Wood, the maintenance supervisor for Spokane Public Schools, said his district — the second-largest in the state — doesn't check all drains regularly, either.

"We don't have the manpower available to be checking infrastructure that appears to be working fine until there's a severe weather condition that forces us to look further," he said.

As president of the Washington Association of Maintenance and Operation Administrators, Wood said keeping up on maintenance is a common problem for districts around the state.

A Seattle district report says the district falls $2.5 million behind every year on maintenance requests.

Lack of funding blamed

The district hired MENG Analysis, a consultant, in 2006 to look at all its buildings. The resulting report ranked buildings by their condition but didn't go into detail about what needed to be fixed.

Stephens said the district should keep better track.

"I think one of the things we're looking to improve is our tracking of status," he said.

Heller, who had headed the department for 23 years, said a lack of funding is to blame for the backlog.

"We've asked for lots of money in the past three or four years, but we've continued to get what we've always had," he said. "Maintenance gets more expensive."

Under state law, ongoing maintenance has to be paid for out of the district's general fund. That means maintenance projects often compete with classroom expenses for money. When it comes down to it, maintenance is often postponed. Wood said his Spokane district makes the same decisions.

"We do repairs on the roof instead of a roof replacement," he said. "Sometimes painting can't be done because we don't have the funding available. We do our best to keep our schools looking good for the public and for our students and staff, but we just have to play a balancing act."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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