Reducing building engineer jobs raises safety concerns in Minneapolis district

Reducing building engineer jobs raises safety concerns in Minneapolis district

District is cutting back engineers and assistant engineers to help close a $28 million shortfall.

The Minneapolis school district's plan to drastically reduce the number of engineers available to fix problems in its buildings has raised safety concerns among teachers and others.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the cutback from about 100 engineers-in-charge and assistant engineers to just 15 “physical plant operators” is an effort to help the district cut costs as it faces a $28 million budget gap. But the plan has some in the district asking if it will increase safety risks in school buildings.

“That is unsafe for the population of the building — kids and staff and administration,” says Ernie Gonzales, an engineer-in-charge at Roosevelt High School.

But Karen DeVet, the district’s chief operations officer, says schools will remain safe. The district is restructuring plant operations for “more effective maintenance and cleaning of our schools,” she says.

The work that engineers typically perform, such as boiler checks and maintenance, now will be the responsibility of physical plant operators, DeVet says.

Schools across the district have head engineers, called engineers-in-charge, as well as assistant engineers. People in those two jobs are responsible for manning boilers, including managing temperature and water issues in school buildings.

The district’s restructuring removes two engineering roles, adds senior custodian roles and increases the number of custodian positions. The changes will result in roughly the same amount of total employees.

But the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers say in a statement that it is not convinced that safety won’t be put at risk.

“Minneapolis parents deserve the peace of mind that goes with knowing they drop their children off at a safe place to learn every morning,” said Jill Jacobson, a union board member and social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. “Buildings as old as ours need constant attention from trained professionals to prevent problems that could affect student learning or safety. And when something goes wrong with a commercial boiler, like a water leak or worse, we can’t wait for the district office to find someone to come over and fix it.”

Minneapolis district officials say the need to cut spending because of a $28 million budget gap for 2017-18 that was uncovered in February.

"There are a number of reasons for this gap, but cost drivers include everything from increased special education compliance costs to salary increases agreed to in last year’s contract negotiations to additional transportation costs and inflationary increases," Superintendent Ed Graff said in a letter to the school board.

His budget cutting plan calls for a 10 percent reduction to Central Services – including significant restructuring of our academic services, as well as reductions to central office staff and centrally staff funded who may work in schools; a 2.5 percent reduction to school allocations; and a one-time use of district reserves.

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