Building Engineers’ Power and Pay Scrutinized as Schools Tighten Belts

By Ann Bradley — January 08, 1992 16 min read

For a few months early last year, William Rankin’s Chicago elementary school was in tip-top shape.

The principal, a veteran of the city’s public schools, was so delighted that he wrote a memo to a district official.

“For the first time in 14 years,” he wrote, “children can wash hands in every wash basin and get a drink from every drinking fountain in the school. All [toilet] leaks have been repaired and washroom floors are finally dry.”

But Mr. Rankin’s elation was short-lived. After less than four months at the school, the principal recalled recently, the building engineer responsible for the turnaround had an argument with a janitor he supervised, and the engineer opted for a transfer.

While Mr. Rankin said that the current building engineer “tries hard to please,” he remains frustrated that the physical condition of his building is essentially beyond his control.

Mr. Rankin’s trouble keeping Victor Herbert Elementary School shipshape is not unusual in big-city school systems, observers say, given the enormous clout wielded by building engineers who have little accountability to school principals.

Through labor agreements negotiated over the years, critics say, the engineers who oversee the maintenance and operation of school facilities in many large districts have gained virtual autonomy in their jobs, excessive control over how schools are used, hefty base salaries, and generous overtime pay that makes it possible for some engineers to earn more than $70,000 a year.

Now, as school systems grapple with recession-forced budget constraints, they are searching for ways to increase the productivity of these employees. Some districts are also considering hiring private firms to clean schools.

“We’re demanding more of [engineers] each day,” Richard Mosley, the manager of building operations for the Cleveland public schools, said in a recent interview.

“When there was plenty of money, we could afford” to pay for highly specialized jobs, he said. “Now, as we begin to retrench and manufacturing is closing down, the money’s not there.”

Meeting Community Demands

This new scrutiny of the role of building engineers comes as schools are facing increasing demands from their communities to find ways to make the buildings available--at no cost to the users--for a whole range of extra activities that are seen as supporting school-improvement efforts or increasing social and recreational opportunities for youths.

These include after-school tutoring sessions, Saturday enrichment classes, and athletic programs.

In many cities, because building engineers and custodians must be paid overtime to work when schools are in use outside the normal hours, community groups are charged fees to use the buildings--a practice that many organizations see as a barrier to the fuller use of school facilities.

But arriving at a greater accommodation of community requests---by easing, for example, requirements that a full-fledged engineer be on the premises whenever a school is in use--will be difficult, observers caution. In many districts, they point out, the unions that represent building engineers and custodians enjoy tremendous political influence beyond the school system.

In Chicago, “the engineers and the custodians are extremely powerful,” said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs For Change, an education-advocacy group that helped write the city’s school-reform legislation.

“In some respects,” Mr. Moore added, “they are more powerful than the teachers’ union in the state capital.”

‘Antiquated’ Rules?

Building engineers’ jobs--which are typically distinct from those of custodians, although the titles may overlap--date back to the days when schools were heated by high-pressure steam boilers that required constant supervision and stoking with coal.

Today, most schools have rooftop heating units or more modern boilers powered by gas or electricity.

Some critics of the role of building engineers argue that schools no longer need to have someone in the building at all times to oversee the heating systems.

“Effectively, some of the rules are pretty antiquated,” said Joseph Blanding, a school-board member in Detroit. But Joe Brady, the director of communications for the national office of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said it is essential for safety reasons to have operating engineers on duty.

“What if a boiler goes, or a steam pipe erupts?” Mr. Brady said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, these systems function safely, but the first time it doesn’t, they’re going to be screaming, ‘Where’s the operating engineer?’”

Critics of the current system, including Mr. Rankin, the Chicago principal, point to the grim conditions in many inner-city schools as one argument for changing the way schools are maintained.

But engineers'-union officials argue that it is unfair to blame their members for conditions, such as leaking roofs, that are beyond their control. They point out that engineers perform dozens of routine maintenance chores that keep deteriorating schools patched together.

“We are here to do the emergency repairs on a day-to-day basis,” said Donald J. McCue, the president of Chicago’s Local 143 of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the building engineer in one of the city’s high schools.

“A week ago, we had a pipe blow between the second and third floors, flooding the TV lab,” Mr. McCue said. “We can’t wait for a serviceman to come out.”

The backlog of scheduled maintenance for the Chicago schools is “unbelievable,” Mr. McCue added, “and it’s going to get worse. This is a very large issue that has grown and festered for so long.”

Samuel B. Husk, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, noted that because so many districts do not have the money to properly maintain their buildings--and are unsuccessful at persuading voters to pay taxes for such upkeep--they end up “creating their own demand” for expensive maintenance jobs.

“They end up hiring people to be in the facility to keep patching up the facility to make it work,” said Mr. Husk, whose group represents 47 urban school districts.

‘More Bang for the Buck’

One urban school system that has managed to make a significant change in the duties required of its building engineers is Detroit’s.

Nearly a fourth of the district’s approximately 550 building engineers were paid between $50,000 and $71,000 in salaries and overtime last school year, according to figures provided by Mr. Blanding.

During the same period, the average elementary- or middle-school principal was paid $59,580, while the average teacher with a master’s degree and 10 years’ experience earned $45,082.

The salaries paid to beginning boiler operators also outstripped the wages paid to a beginning teacher without a master’s degree: The new engineer made $29,993, while the novice teacher was paid $24,486.

Given the size of engineers’ salaries, the Detroit Board of Education sought during recent contract negotiations to “get more bang for the buck” from the employees, Mr. Blanding said.

“Our thought was, as opposed to attacking them on things negotiated in the past--which would mean pretty major battles to take away benefits-that we would do better in enhancing their job responsibilities,” he said. “in the long run, we’ll come out ahead.”

The contract agreement reached last month gives building engineers responsibility for all of the mechanical systems in the Detroit schools.

Although many engineers already did routine electrical, plumbing, and carpentry work, they had previously been required only to maintain the schools’ heating systems.

Philip Schloop, the business manager for Detroit’s Local 547 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said union negotiators were more than willing to formally expand engineers’ job duties.

“We pride ourselves on what we do,” Mr. Schloop said. “We think there’s a constructive role that we can play, and we want to play it.”

Before the agreement was reached, however, union members staged a “sick out” in Detroit’s high schools one day early last month to protest the district’s salary and health-benefit proposals.

The job action dramatically illustrated the union’s power when the district was forced to close all of its schools. The total shutdown was necessary because meals for elementary and junior-high students are prepared in the high schools, which had no heat that December day.

Salary Survey

Detroit’s building engineers are not alone in being well-paid. In Cleveland, for example, the highest paid engineer earned $75,000 last year, according to Mr. Mosley, the building-operations manager there.

A study of New York City’s custodial system, conducted in 1990 by the HayGroup consulting firm, found that New York’s “custodian engineers,” who maintain school plants and supervise custodial employees, are the highest-paid in the nation, with a base salary of $57,000. City school officials are currently in contract negotiations with the district’s engineers. (See related story, page 21 .)

The HayGroup study examined salaries in seven additional districts-Buffalo, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Dade County, Fla., Philadelphia, and Los Angeles-and found that base salaries for building engineers ranged from New York’s high to a low of $20,296 in Baltimore.

The study found that the average salary in seven cities excluding Cleveland, for which no data were available--was $36,280. Salaries were highest in cities where engineers had the most managerial responsibility for other maintenance and custodial employees and where they were required to perform the most tasks, including electrical and plumbing work and minor window repairs.

Mr. Husk of the Great City Schools said building engineers’ salaries reflect their unions’ success over many years at negotiating rates comparable to what other workers were being paid in heavily unionized cities.

Autonomy in Jobs

In New York City, Chicago, and Cleveland, building engineers also supervise the janitorial staff. In turn, the engineers are supervised by off-site officials in district offices. Principals in those cities have limited, if any, authority over their schools’ engineers.

In the Los Angeles and Dade County districts, however, principals do supervise their custodial staffs. In Dade County, schools’ mechanical systems are maintained by “zone mechanics” who are shared by schools, according to Michael Wagner, the principal of Coral Terrace Elementary School and the president of the Dade County School Administrators Association.

“We haven’t had that many problems that I’m aware of,” Mr. Wagner said.

Another option, which is recommended by some management consultants but has not been widely embraced by major districts, is to turn over maintenance and custodial chores to a private company. (See related story, this page.)

Reform Issue in Chicago

In Chicago, meanwhile, principals’ lack of authority over engineering and custodial employees has emerged as an issue in that city’s continuing push for school reform.

A coalition of school-reform advocates there asked Illinois legislators last spring to give the city’s principals the authority to hire and fire school engineers and food-service workers. The Chicago district is the only one in the state whose principals do not have such authority.

All of the school system’s unions lobbied against the measure, which was defeated. Instead, principals were given the authority to help evaluate school engineers.

Union leaders opposed to greater control by the principals argued that principals have enough work to do already and do not know enough about schools’ physical plants to properly supervise engineers and custodians.

“None of these principals in Chicago know anything about the physical plant of these schools,” said Jarvis Williams, the president of the Public Service Employees Union Local 46, which represents 2,800 school custodians along with other Chicago workers.

Mr. McCue of the Chicago operating engineers’ union said last month that the issue of principals’ supervision of engineers was something his union was “not discussing now.”

Bringing school-maintenance staffs under the supervision of principals is “one of the last major problems” that school reformers in the city hope to address, Mr. Moore of Designs for Change said. “This is an irritant in many schools, and in some where the custodial staff is uncooperative, it becomes a major problem,” he said.

“But it is important to keep it in perspective,” he added.

‘Costly and Ineffective’

After the Chicago school-reform law was passed in 1988, giving significant authority to local councils in each of the city’s public schools, the beard of education had to make special provisions for the council members to be able to meet after hours in school buildings.

Building engineers receive overtime for six school-council meetings a year and compensatory time for another 26 meetings, according to their union.

“It’s silly, to me, to have an engineer and a custodian for 10 people sitting around a table discussing school business,” Mr. Rankin, the Victor Herbert Elementary School principal, said. “If we’re having a big show with popcorn, and we have to clean it up, then I say let’s pay them what they deserve.”

The Citizens Schools Committee, a Chicago advocacy group that organized a 20-group coalition in support of the proposal for giving principals direct authority over building engineers, has called repeatedly for the building engineers’ positions to be eliminated.

The group advocates replacing engineers with lower-paid maintenance supervisors and placing all custodial workers under principals’ supervision.

Under such an arrangement, according to Barbara Holt, the group’s executive director, roving maintenance crews could service the schools’ heating systems.

Ms. Holt estimates that such a move would save the school system $20 million a year.

“If you came here from outer space,” she said, “you would wonder why people would arrange things this way, if it’s so costly and ineffective.”

Mr. McCue of the engineers’ union refused in a recent interview to discuss the Citizens Schools Committee’s recommendations, other than to refer to the group as “do-gooders.”

The committee also advocates eliminating the positions held by “school maintenance assistants,” who used to be called firemen because their jobs originated with stoking heating systems with coal.

Building-Use Fees

Because union contracts, school board rules, or municipal codes in large cities typically require that a building engineer be present when a school is open, engineers routinely work overtime.

Community, church, and business groups that want to use school buildings for after-school enrichment or athletic programs often are charged yearly fees for the use of the buildings.

The money offsets the cost of paying for a building engineer to be at the school and for janitorial employees to clean up after the activity.

During the 1989-90 school year, for example, Chicago paid out more than $8 million in overtime to its engineering and custodial employees, figures supplied by the Citizens Schools Committee show.

About 40 percent of the overtime cost was recovered from fees paid by groups that used the schools after normal hours, according to district officials.

The practice of charging for the use of public buildings has drawn bitter criticism from community advocates in a number of cities. They argue that school buildings are often the only safe places for gatherings in inner-city neighborhoods and that the imposition of fees for such use is unfair or counterproductive.

“It’s criminal to lock up the schools and not have programs running in the neighborhoods where they are so sorely needed,” Ms. Holt of Chicago’s Citizens Schools Committee said.

As more and more businesses and community groups have gotten involved with education, noted Chris Carmody, the press secretary for Mayor Michael White of Cleveland, the issue has moved to the forefront.

“You’ve had very large corporate entities attempting to do something for the students in an adopted school,” Mr. Carmody said, “and having it cost an arm and a leg.”

In Cleveland, for example, Society National Bank has “adopted” East High School, where it offers a Saturday enrichment program.

Theron Sumpter Jr., the bank’s corporate educational initiatives officer, said the bank simply budgets the money for the building fees into the amount set aside for the program. The school system charges $40 an hour for the use of the schools, he said, which means the bank pays $80 to $160 per Saturday.

“At this point, it’s a reality,” Mr. Sumpter said. “It’s part of what we have to do to maintain the Saturday program.”

‘It’s Just Not Fair’

In Detroit, a coalition of the city’s ministers is less happy about having to pay to use the schools.

Odell Jones, the pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, said the city’s ministers asked board members to try to eliminate the fees during the recent contract negotiations.

His church pays $19 an hour to use school gymnasiums for its youth-basketball program, Mr. Jones said. The $600 a season for the fees comes out of the congregation’s donations to the church.

“To me, it’s just not fair,” Mr. Jones said. “At this time, city recreation buildings are closed because of the shortage of funds. In this same community, there are three brand-new jailhouses but no recreation, and yet they are charging us that kind of money.”

Pleasant Grove has been paying the fees for about 15 years, he noted. At the same time, he added, the church allows the school system to use its bus from time to time and to use its building for a remedial program at no cost.

Mr. Blanding of the Detroit school board said he considers the issue of fees “a serious problem.”

“If we can’t get some agreement with the engineers to allow schools to be innovative,” he said, “we really [disrupt] the kinds of concepts and ideas local schools can come up with.”

Mr. Schloop of the Detroit engineers’ union said he recommended during negotiations that the school board prepare a brochure to help community members know which schools already are scheduled to have engineers working afternoon shifts.

These schools--including many high schools--would not require any fees to keep open, he said.

“Many times, people are unaware of those availabilities,” he said.

But Mr. Jones of Pleasant Grove said the high school near his church has its own basketball team that uses the gymnasium after school.

Robert O. Dulin Jr., the minister at the Metropolitan Church of God, said he thinks engineers should donate some of their time to make broader use of school facilities possible.

“All of us give volunteer time in some capacity,” he said. “There’s no reason why even a union member could not give some volunteer time after school hours to make some of these things happen.”

Barring such altruism, the issues raised by after-hours use of facilities, like those involving the extent of principals’ control over their schools’ engineering and custodial staffs, are likely to be played out at the bargaining table.

Mr. Husk of the Great City Schools points out that, unlike with teachers’ unions, which have increasingly come to be seen as partners in school-reform efforts, school districts and their technical- and maintenance-staff unions are just beginning to explore ways to work together on issues that affect educational improvement.

“It took a long time for management and labor to come together in other sectors,” Mr. Husk said, “and it will take a while for management and labor to come together in this sector, too.”

“We’re just at the point where that change is beginning to take place,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Building Engineers’ Power and Pay Scrutinized as Schools Tighten Belts