Dayton Public Schools has budgeted more than $30 million for repairs of relatively new school buildings in the next few years, but district leaders disagree on how much will be spent in the end or what repairs the school buildings actually need.
Last month, when school board member Sheila Taylor voted against borrowing $40 million for the facilities work, she said it was because there was no detailed list of what the money would be spent on — which boilers or roofs or parking lots needed to be replaced at specific schools.
School board President William Harris said to Taylor that all that information had been available for some time. Asked moments later where that specific list of projects was, both Harris and associate superintendent Shelia Burton told this newspaper the list was in a December 2018 report from consultant Four Seasons Environmental.
Four Seasons Environmental is a Monroe-based company that produced a 210-page Maintenance Plan document for the district and its buildings. The document contains neither a list of specific projects nor an assessment of whether the school buildings are in good or poor condition. The report suggests dollar amounts that each building might need annually for maintenance, repairs and eventual equipment replacement, based on square footage and types of building components.
But in public meetings and interviews, school leaders have talked about $40 million in repairs and maintenance projects as though there was a list of work that was clear and necessary. The Dayton Daily News has sought to find out what the situation is, what Dayton school buildings need to be in good condition, and what will it cost.
The DPS project list
In an interview Monday, Burton said a newspaper inquiry into the topic was “somewhat correct” that the district’s maintenance plan is not as specific as some school leaders have described. Burton said that when the report calls for regular, planned maintenance in a certain general category, DPS staff know specifically what that means.
“What we have internally is, the director has put together a chart of OK, here are all the buildings, and planned maintenance for this one is the parking lot and for this one it’s the HVAC system,” Burton said.
After a public records request for that chart, the school district produced a one-page document listing planned spending totals for each of the next three years in 14 general categories such as furniture, paving and lighting. There was no breakdown of what work would be done at which buildings, as the chart said “all projects are to be completed district-wide.”
Asked whether that meant all 25-plus schools would have the same work done – their gym floors reconditioned, their parking lots redone, their water heaters replaced – Burton said that work would be done at each school “over the lifetime of the building … based on need.”
The lack of clarity has aggravated two of the seven members of the Dayton school board.
“How in the world can you be approving to borrow all this money and not have it marked for where it’s supposed to go,” asked Taylor, whose term on the board ends in a few weeks. “I’m concerned where the money’s really going to be spent.”
Taylor and fellow board member John McManus both opposed the borrowing plan. Both said they have not seen a list of specific projects at any time during DPS’ yearlong discussion of building repairs.
School board Vice President Jocelyn Rhynard confirmed that district facilities staff had not made a presentation to the board on detailed needs in 2019.
In public board meetings this year, Burton and district officials had said the three largest areas of need were roofs, parking lots and HVAC systems. The spreadsheet the district’s administration produced Thursday does not call for any roof work. Parking lots/paving is by far the largest category of projected spending at $13.28 million, followed by repairs for outdoor athletic fields and tracks, which will cost an estimated $8 million.
Confusion over spending amounts
The document Dayton school officials provided Thursday showed the district plans to spend $35.2 million over the next three years on these maintenance projects.
On a larger scale though, there has been significant disagreement over the amount to be spent on maintenance.
** Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said in May that Dayton schools need about $17 million for each of the next three years ($51 million total) as catch-up work “to cover the things that haven’t been done over the past 10 years.” She said that $17 million figure came from the Four Seasons report. She said $7 million of it has already been allocated in the school district budget. The school board voted May 28 to approve spending the additional $30 million - $10 million per year for three years.
** In the following months, the school board discussed borrowing that $30 million rather than spending cash on hand. But when they voted Nov. 19 to approve the borrowing in principle, the resolution allowed for borrowing $40 million over four years, rather than $30 million over three. Some board members said they had not heard any discussion of the change. Board member Mohamed al-Hamdani said it was “just to give us a little wiggle room.”
** In an interview Tuesday, DPS Treasurer Hiwot Abraha said $3.2 million of the $17 million facilities expense has been budgeted as salary and benefits costs. She said the increase in budgeted spending is actually about $14 million per year.
High costs to repair fairly new buildings
DPS currently operates 25 school buildings, with almost all of them built in the last eight to 14 years. They were constructed as part of a partnership with the state of Ohio, which helped school construction throughout the state. Al-Hamdani said last month that some newer DPS buildings are in disrepair, saying there were some with heating and cooling problems, crumbling walls and in need of new roofs.
Dayton teachers union President David Romick said Tuesday that there is some work needed, but his members have not reported widespread problems. Some teachers have noted poorly functioning air conditioning in a few buildings, he said.
Lolli, Burton and multiple board members have said repeatedly that the district needs to spend money on repairs because for several years the district had not done regular maintenance.
Asked this week for a breakdown of DPS’ spending on facility maintenance the past four years, Abraha produced a document showing that DPS had paid more than $3 million each year in salary and benefits to its facility maintenance staff and another $6 million-plus per year to custodial staff. Another $900,000 per year went to contractors, materials and capital spending under facilities maintenance.
Asked Thursday what types of maintenance had been ignored, school board Vice President Jocelyn Rhynard said she couldn’t answer. Asked about Lolli’s claims that there had been a lack of ongoing maintenance, Burton said “I can’t address how we got here, nor why we got here.”
Dayton’s newer schools were built in collaboration with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission. OFCC spokesman J.C. Benton said preventive maintenance should not be skipped, as it’s a key to making the buildings last.
“When we complete a building, we don’t just hand over the keys and say we’re done, good luck,” Benton said. “In our Web tool, there is a maintenance plan for every bit of the buildings, everything from filters to light fixtures. Part of that plan is as detailed as a month-to-month, day-to-day, ‘It’s Jan. 4, have you checked these fixtures?’ ”
Next steps for the school district
While the school board approved the $40 million borrowing plan in principle, that document says the board has to hold a separate formal vote to actually borrow the money. It has not yet done so. On Wednesday, al-Hamdani said it’s possible the district won’t borrow the full amount.
Burton and Dickstein, who is the district’s new business manager, had different approaches to implementing the Four Seasons report. Burton said the report has a spreadsheet for each school, and if it lists an $8,000 need for capital renewal in the HVAC category, DPS needs to do that work, and it’s just a matter of priorities and scheduling.
“This is what it says you do at Thurgood (Marshall High School), on Page 86. We need to replace a life and fire safety system that’s $3,000. We need to replace the ADA/elevator/lift that’s $4,000-plus dollars. The HVAC system is $8,287,” Burton said. “It’s up to our team to decide the order in which things are going to be replaced.”
Dickstein said several times that the district may not need to spend on those repairs right away, but should be saving those amounts of money each year, building up a reserve, so that when major systems do fail, the money is there to fix them.
That could be especially important since nearly all the district’s schools were built in an eight-year window, meaning sometime in the future, many expenses could crop up at the same time.
“We are trying to play catch up in maintaining our buildings and being proactive to provide a safe, warm environment for kids to learn,” Dickstein said. “And it’s expensive to do it. … Being transparent about how we’re spending the money and when we’re spending it is a good thing.”
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