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SCHOOL-MAINTENANCE PROJECTS HEAT UP IN SUMMER

At Vista Elementary School, you don't have to go outside to know what the weather is like.

Dripping ceilings and puddles in hallways are a sure sign that it's raining. During the school year, personnel routinely pull out waste baskets, strategically place them to catch the dribbles and go about their business.And Vista's problems aren't even serious enough to put it anywhere near the top of Granite District's priority list for roof repairs.

All of Salt Lake County's school districts share the same concerns to one degree or another. Building upkeep, parking lot and playground repairs are major cost items for the districts. It is, however, an issue that gets far less public attention than personnel salaries.

Although most schools are out of session for the summer, maintenance is not on a three-month hiatus. Summer is the prime repair time in the schools.

Granite District

With 90 schools, 10 additional buildings and more than 200 relocatables to maintain, Granite always has a significant backlog of work.

"We're in no way ahead of the game," said Larry Mitchell, maintenance supervisor. "We've been treated fairly (in budget considerations), but everyone is struggling."

In 1990, the district received about 3,000 requests for improvements and equipment and was able to approve about 1,200 - 40 percent.

Although the district has opened about a million square feet of new space in the past five years, the maintenance staff has not grown, Mitchell said. When the district had to cut budgets a few years ago, the department lost eight people, some of whom have still not been replaced.

In addition, many of the district's schools are getting older and require more maintenance and they are being equipped with more sophisticated equipment that requires a higher level of competence in the maintenance personnel. Two computer repair specialists have been added to the staff.

"We spend a lot of time `putting out fires,' " said Ross Wentworth, director of school facilities. "We end up spending more than if we were doing preventive maintenance." Safety issues take top priority, he said. Some of the older buildings do not meet current standards.

Federal mandates on asbestos abatement and other environmental problems have added to the demand, Wentworth said. This year, Granite spent about $250,000 on asbestos abatement, and the work will continue until all district buildings are asbestos free or have the material encapsulated.

The district also has an annual budget of approximately $700,000 for roof repairs, which doesn't begin to meet the immediate need. It can rotate through its schools about every 30-35 years, Wentworth said. "We're still playing a catch-up game."

In addition, the district is just beginning to realize the impact of year-round schools. There was an initial expense to air-condition schools that would be occupied during summer months, and the heavier use may demand more frequent major maintenance, he said.

A decision by the Granite Board of Education to shift one mill from the capital outlay budget to maintenance/operations so it can receive a state supplement will "hit us pretty hard," Wentworth said. The board is trying to determine where to make cuts to accommodate the shift. This fall, voters will be asked to support a two-mill levy so the capital outlay money can be returned to its own category, he said.

Jordan District

Patty Dahl, spokeswoman for Jordan, which is the second largest district in the state, said asbestos testing, bringing schools up to earth-quake standards, asphalting parking lots, maintaining playgrounds and other emergency school repairs are the primary needs.

Like Granite District, Jordan has been in a high-growth mode for a couple of decades, adding buildings throughout the district and converting to year-round school schedules. Since 1980, the district has opened a new high school, six middle schools, 12 elementary schools and one technical center. Of 70 buildings, 20 have been built in the past 10 years.

Because growth has been consistently southward in the valley, Jordan has a greater percentage of new buildings than Granite and less maintenance of old buildings, Dahl said.

"Down the line, we will have to beef the budget back up.," she said.

This year, the district will spend $10.8 million on capital-outlay projects, but there is always a backlog, she said.

Districts don't have the option of simply shifting money from teacher salaries to help meet maintenance needs, she said, even if that were desirable.

"They're funded from different kinds of income," she said. Salaries come from the district's maintenance and operations budget, which is by far the largest financial category, while a separate capital-outlay budget provides for maintenance.

Jordan's board chose to shift two mills from capital outlay to take advantage of a state supplement intended to reduce class sizes. The shift will reduce the capital outlay budget by slightly more than 4 percent, Dahl said.

Murray District

The district could use more money to replace or repair old floors, lights, leaky roofs, deteriorated walls, student furniture, fixtures, bathrooms and playgrounds.

"It would take a sizeable amount of money to bring all of our buildings up to standard," said Superintendent Ron Stephens.

Stephens says he's met with every district principal to find out what he or she feels needs to be repaired immediately.

"We say to each principal, `Here's our budget for next year, and based on the five items you've told me, the budget will only allow us to cover three of them. Help us decide what we need to do.' "

The district is doing upgrading "as fast as we can afford it within our budget," Stephens said.

Richard Clark, Murray's business administrator, said the district's operation and maintenance fund this year was $2,026,301. He said this money was used to pay for custodial services, heating, lighting and some school supplies.

He said the district's computer laboratories, currently manned by volunteers, could use some paid staff assistance. "We would be much better off if we had trained individuals in the computers lab that we could pay for two to three hours a day." An additional $32,000 would fulfill the need.

Salt Lake District

Business administrator W. Gary Harmer characterizes Salt Lake's school buildings as "old but generally well-maintained."

While other school districts struggle with growing student enrollments and must construct new buildings to meet demand, Salt Lake has faced the opposite problem - a dwindling student population and closure of buildings.

Salt Lake's enrollment peaked at an all-time high of 40,000 in 1958. Since then, the enrollment has dropped to its current level of 24,193, Instead of building new schools, the district has systematically closed 27 elementary and intermediate schools in the last 20 years. Some older elementaries have been replaced by new versions.

Without the demand for new buildings and with the city's higher assessed valuation, Salt Lake has had more funds to pump into building upkeep. At times, the district siphons money from maintenance to curriculum, said district staff coordinator Jan Keller.

Harmer said, "We've tried not to defer maintenance. We understand if you don't do it this year, it will get worse, especially roofing. You don't avoid by deferring."

He doesn't know of any major maintenance problems left unattended during this past school year. The district has a five-year maintenance and replacement plan in which the structural components of the buildings are routinely inspected and problems are identified and repaired.

Also unlike the other districts, Salt Lake is out in front in assessing the ability of its schools to structurally withstand a moderate to severe earthquake. In its study, the district will have experts determine the structural life left in its three high schools.