A recent independent investigation into Portland Public Schools’ handling of high lead levels in school drinking water forced Superintendent Carole Smith’s retirement. But it also revealed deeper problems: a school district where management practices were even more deficient than the aging schools kids attend every day.
It’s a problem all-too-familiar to the people responsible for making sure our schools are safe, every day.
Sharon Raymor spent four years at Portland Public Schools.
“I was originally hired as a project manager in facilities, then I got the senior maintenance manager position over the mechanical trades shop,” Raymor said, sitting on a bench in the South Park blocks in downtown Portland, not far from her current office with the City of Portland.
Raymor managed Portland Public Schools’ plumbing crew until she left in October. Seven months after she left, one of the people covering for her was suspended in the lead controversy. Long before that, Raymor worried she might be hung out to dry, if something went wrong.
“I have no doubts that I could have easily been the in eye of this storm, as well – no direct fault of my own, but sort of a systemic problem. … But, here you are,” Raymor speculated. In June, Raymor wrote a letter to Smith and the district’s board of education that offered her perspective on why the school district was in the middle of the lead predicament.
Her worries are echoed in the stories OPB heard from several other facilities managers who’ve left the district. PPS officials confirmed at least 12 managers have left the Facilities and Asset Management Department in the last year and a half.
Some shake their heads at how parents, officials and the media have responded to the discovery and communication of elevated lead levels in Portland schools.
“It has been very frustrating to watch all of the hysteria,” said Josh Hjertstedt, who left after nine years of management in PPS facilities for a position at the Port of Portland.
“My first reaction was ‘oh gosh, well next year it’s going to be asbestos and the next year it’s going to be mold,’” Hjertstedt said, thinking through the many environmental problems in the district’s schools. “The bottom line is the average age of Portland schools is 76 years old.”
With all these lurking problems, the outside lead investigation found few protocols and procedures guiding how PPS buildings should be maintained.
Raymor said there was no time to come up with a solid strategy for maintaining schools.
“What I got thrown into was ‘here, make this happen.’ Well, what’s the history? What’s the protocol before? Well, might be buried in a folder, 10 folders deep, potentially, but you don’t have time to dive down and try to find it. So you start from square one,” Raymor said.
And in a school district with significant management turnover, Raymor said, “I think there was a lot of repeat, re-inventing the wheel efforts of some of these larger, systemic responsibilities that fell under maintenance … the lead, anything code compliance-related.”
So managers relied on guiding principles, that above all, they keep schools warm, dry and safe — especially classrooms.
Managers like Raymor would get calls from principals or parents. Maybe they wanted a toilet fixed. Raymor would gently explain that if there were other working toilets nearby, that won’t be as important as fixing big leaks, for instance.
Raymor said her answer went something like this: “Ma’am, sir, I understand you’re – what you want is valid. But let me explain what I have to work with, and what is on our plate, essentially.”
She’d try to put off the requests that should be at the bottom of the list.
But often the parent or principal would go up the chain of command and get a different answer. And that would get passed back down to her.
“Nobody wants to say ‘sorry’,” Raymor recalled.
Raymor had nine plumbers she could send on urgent calls to 78 school campuses. Sometimes there’d be dozens such calls in a single day. She was pulling long hours, feeling like her crew could barely keep up with the urgent calls, to say nothing of the lower priority calls, or preventive maintenance.
“Here I am faced with fixing a bunch of problems that were, that there were no resources to do it, there was not enough crew to do it,” Raymor said.
And in a system lacking clear protocols and short of resources, managers said the squeaky wheel, or the news cycle could change priorities - and that came from over their heads. Former facilities manager Josh Hjertstedt said upper management tends to have career educators, rather than facility or business executives. He questions their judgment.
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
“So, when they’re faced with business decisions, we’re continually swayed by the screaming parent, or the neighborhood that’s in an uproar,” Hjertstedt said.
Managers and union workers don’t always see eye-to-eye on how the maintenance shops should be run, but the lack of clear direction from top administration obviously frustrates both sides.
Pat Christianson was a union plumber for more than two decades at PPS, and now heads the District Council of Trade Unions, representing maintenance workers. He said when the lead problems surfaced, facility workers were diverted from fixing things; they were responding to the crisis of the moment.
“So all those people who had other work to be doing were re-directed to delivering water. Then, a week later, they were tasked with going out and retrieving empty bottles,” Christianson recalled.
Board members appear to recognize the problems, and have called for establishing protocols and clarifying the chain of command.
The union head agrees with the former managers and on up to school board members, that truly fixing these problems will take cultural changes at Oregon’s largest district – and money. The school board agreed this week to delay putting a $750 million construction bond on the ballot, in part because the district’s elected leaders want to focus on finding a new top executive.