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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Maintenance and Operations: How Shorewood Measures Up

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

[Important edits made to this post Tuesday, March 13 regarding the data cited here]

Spend a lot of time in any of our schools, and despite their historic beauty, there are puzzling maintenance failures become obvious. You might think that's because the district is struggling to make ends meet, or because we made a decision to spend more money on instruction and worry about our buildings later.

But you would be wrong about at least one of those assumptions: Shorewood is spending as much or more than its similar neighboring districts on maintenance and operations, no matter how you slice it.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you might remember that the district business manager and board members prefer to stick with the story that we spend $80,000 on "maintenance" every year. This is the amount they say is spent on fixing broken items and buying new or replacement items, also known as capital improvements. (Read Business Manager Patrick Miller's full report here) But since that figure is really a matter of internal estimates rather than any line item, it's impossible to compare that "apple" to another "apple" at another district. The best proxy we have is to look at what districts report to the state. Comparing apples to apples, the numbers are pretty shocking.

[The section below has been edited] Thankfully, we have that data all compiled for us by a helpful citizen, Sam Knox, a parent and volunteer who is the walking definition of a mensch. He gathered these numbers to help inform the conversation around facilities, and shared these figures with administrators and board members in addition to me. At his request, I am removing the link to the numbers and ask anyone interested in seeing the full set to contact him. That way he can offer important context for anyone interested. He was trying to help the district by gathering and sharing public information. I want to be clear that he did not ask me to make these numbers public or somehow publish an indictment of the district. He is an incredibly thoughtful and kind-hearted human and I want to be sure no one thinks otherwise. If anyone finds this post unhelpful or problematic, that's on me and not him.

He gathered data from financial filings to compare our spending with similar nearby districts: Brown Deer, Cedarburg, Fox Point, Glendale, Grafton, Maple Dale, Mequon-Theiensville, Nicolet and Whitefish Bay. (Read this earlier post for more on what's included in this reported Maintenance and Operations figure).

Here are my own top line takeaways from the state filings data compiled for the district by Sam:

  • Over the last 10 years (2008-2017), we've spent more than $41 million on Maintenance and Operations, more than any of those districts except Mequon-Theinsville.

  • Over that same 10-year span, we spent more per square foot of buildings and more as a percentage of operating revenue than any of these other districts, and more per student than all but Nicolet. We're also second in how much we spend as a percentage of average property tax, beaten by Brown Deer.

Despite this spending, we have some embarrassing maintenance failures in our schools. For example, the North Gym at our high school, which is not only used by high school students but community groups that rent it out.

For an embarrassing length of time, a giant hole in the wall has loomed just over one of the basketball hoops.

Meanwhile, the floor in the same gym was so poorly refinished that the surface layer has bubbled, cracked and turned to dust for athletes to inhale and sweep into piles between drills.

This is just one example of many that students, parents and community members grumble about, from dripping sinks to holes in ceilings to broken equipment that never gets replaced. For example, walk over to the main arena at SHS and you'll find drinking fountains pointed to spray water onto the floor.

I think most parents -- and maybe teachers -- feel embarrassed to complain about these things, because we assume and hope the district is just ignoring maintenance in favor of investing in teachers and student services. But if we're spending more than all of our neighbors, it's hard to see how that could be true.

I hope our board looked closely [edit to clarify this was a collection of publicly reported numbers] at the reported numbers and is considering how we rank compared to our neighbors, and that they are closely examining the way our buildings are maintained today. I hope that's happening before they ask us to approve a multi-million dollar facilities plan. I hope they don't expect voters to give the green light for an infusion of money into the status quo system that has allowed our buildings to crumble in places and gather a hard layer of dirt in many more.

I would feel better about voting "yes" whenever the referendum comes around if I knew the district had a comprehensive short and long-term maintenance plan -- not just a building plan, but a plan for upkeep of the old and new, and was following best practices, like the ones here in this amazingly detailed and helpful planning guide from the National Forum on Education Statistics.

The good news is, all of these needs are under discussion -- maybe even the north gym wall. As many of you know, the board is in the midst of a multi-part deep dive (along with district staff) into facilities planning, and though momentum has slowed, conversations happening today will likely affect the buildings that current elementary school kids will use in high school.

The current review follows a bit of a hiccup late last year when not all board members were fans of the initial product that architects Epstein Uhen gave the district, including the infamous glass atrium proposal at SHS, the subject of ridicule and disdain by quite a few stakeholders, including students.

Worth noting -- students realize that new construction is probably the wrong place to start with work on our buildings -- the image below was a meme shared on a popular SHS student social media account (pardon the minor profanity).

The board seems to have heard that message and slowed down any plans for construction for the near-term. This spring, the board has a series of meetings scheduled to "review" the facilities plan, at meetings that sound a lot more like work sessions than "reviews," but OK...

According to the most recent update sent to parents via email, at the latest of these sessions, architects were planning to "provide additional analyses of space ... and preliminary explorations of facilities with drawings. The Board will also review the project lists from previous referenda and the completion of past projects." There were no minutes or documents made public for this March 5 meeting, but it's clear to even the casual observer than many items they are examining and putting on the district work plan are years -- if not decades -- overdue, predating any of the current leadership.

I hope the board prioritizes the unglamorous items like functional plumbing, windows and brick maintenance before it considers any new construction. Beyond that, I think it would be fair for the board -- and the public -- to ask for reassurance that the status quo approach to maintenance is going to be overhauled in favor of something that delivers value for our high investment of tax dollars.

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