Top Gun

June 1, 1997
Meet 1997's National School Plant Manager of the Year, as well as other outstanding school facilities professionals.

Meet 1997's National School Plant Manager of the Year, as well as other outstanding school facilities professionals.

Last year, American School & University and the newly formed National School Plant Management Association (NSPMA) created the National School Plant Manager of the Year award to recognize outstanding achievement and service to the school plant profession, as well as community involvement and dedication to improving the physical environment and promoting its importance to the education process.

This year's recipients were announced at NSPMA's 2nd annual convention in April in Miami Beach, Fla. The grand-award winner was presented a $1,000 continuing-education donation, and all were awarded a handsome plaque.

Following are profiles of those individuals honored. AS&U and NSPMA congratulate these outstanding school plant professionals and wish them continued success in their endeavors.

National school plant manager of the year, Kenneth J. Ducote, Director of Facility Planning, New Orleans Public Schools, New Orleans, La.

The efforts and accomplishments of individuals thrust into extremely challenging situations is a true determination of success. This year's recipient of the National School Plant Manager of the Year award is no stranger to challenges or controversy. Kenneth J. Ducote has met and often exceeded the demands placed on him as a facilities professional at New Orleans Public Schools for more than 17 years.

Ducote manages the assessment, acquisition, construction, improvement, expansion, use, allocation and disposal of 10 million square feet of facilities in the 85,000-student urban school district, and is responsible for 400 buildings on 125 campuses. With an annual departmental budget of $1.3 million, he also oversees a five-year $225 million capital-fund budget. The current budget provides about one-third of the defined need in a city where 49 percent of the children live below the poverty line.

No school district has enough money to do all the things it feels it needs to do to provide exemplary environments for learning. At New Orleans Public Schools, the situation is compounded by the fact that not only is there not enough money, but also the majority of its school buildings are older--the average age being approximately 60 years old--and in need of major repair.

"Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 'The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,'" says Ducote. "Throughout my professional life, I have never known comfort and convenience, and I believe that my record is an adequate measure of where I have stood in times of challenge and controversy."

Although Ducote has been responsible for all district facilities for more than 17 years, he has dedicated most of his working life to the district, joining it in 1971 as a mathematics teacher. Among his accomplishments include:

-Lead a program to successfully implement $9.5 million in lighting, HVAC and plumbing improvements funded exclusively through energy savings.

-Developed the district's first long-range facilities plan in more than 40 years.

-Reorganized staff for improved productivity and integrity.

-Revised standard contracts for architects, engineers and contractors to improve controls on quality, time and cost.

-Developed a residential relocation program for residents displaced by new school buildings.

-Initiated aggressive efforts to prevent bars, massage parlors and brothels from locating near public schools.

-Developed a plan to promote school safety and successfully negotiated its funding with the mayor's office and city council.

Fighting decades of corruption and political favoritism in awarding government contracts in New Orleans, Ducote instituted policies and procedures in 1988 that restructured the department with new technical professionals, revised and shortened the product-delivery system for capital projects, and installed fiscal accountability.

"The most important environment we have is the one that surrounds our children," says Ducote. "There are no funds more worthy of honest stewardship than those used to improve the lives of our children."

The Bureau of Governmental Research honored the district's facility planning department with an excellence in government award in 1994 and 1995 for:

-Devising a new policy for procuring professional services for capital projects.

-Creating a capital-improvements programming committee, which includes parents and helps develop priorities and policies for facility planning.

-Establishing an informal network of professionals--nicknamed the "construction connection"--at other public agencies that meet to discuss common problems and potential solutions.

-Leveraging limited capital to increase the number of air-conditioned classrooms.

-Pressing legal claims against contractors that perform defective work.

In addition, the International Society for Educational Planning honored him with a merit award in 1987, making particular mention of the planning successes that have been achieved during times and under conditions characterized by extreme financial difficulty.

Ducote has remained active with other public institutions within the state and recently has participated in the drafting of new policy recommendations on funding for state educational institutions to be presented to the state legislature. He also has served as president of the International Society for Educational Planning, vice president of the Louisiana School Plant Management Association, and project advisor for the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) series of reports on school facilities. He is very involved in the community, dedicating time and energy to the Mayor's Forum on Youth and Education, YMCA Adult Literacy Program and Metropolitan Area Committee, among other things.

"To my knowledge, there is no one who has done so much with so little--given our modern times where lack of funds and personnel have made the operation and upkeep of today's public schools an almost impossible task," says Michael Burnette, construction manager for the district. "He has helped obtain national attention to the plight of public school facilities, as well as motivate our state government to move toward providing facilities funding."

Honorable mention: Walter W. Gembala, Director of Operations and Maintenance, Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233, Flossmoor, Ill.

With more than 20 years experience in the school plant-management field, Walter Gembala has directed the operations and maintenance functions of Homewood-Flossmoor CHSD for the past 13 years. He oversees 13 maintenance staff and a contract custodial service, as well as develops and manages a $3 million budget.

A 1994-96 recipient of the U.S. Department of Education's "Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award," the district is made up of three buildings with approximately 750,000 square feet of space on 98 acres, which includes practice and competition sports areas. Gembala has implemented a variety of innovative programs that have saved the district money and improved overall operations, including:

-Helping develop a $4.3 million performance-contract project for energy improvements, which features replacement of more than 8,000 lamp fixtures and 69 major pieces of HVAC equipment. The project has a guaranteed savings of $7.8 million over a 10-year period.

-Installing and continually upgrading an 1,800-point direct-digital-control energy-management system.

-Creating a plan to regularly investigate funding options to improve energy conservation and equipment selection.

"Throughout the many years that I have worked in schools, I have found that due to budget constraints, there always is a new opportunity around the corner waiting to challenge one's ability, education and experience," says Gembala.

He has been president of the South Suburban School Maintenance Association for 13 of the last 16 years. He also is involved with several other professional associations, including American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) and Sports Turf Managers Association. In 1992, he received the Illinois State Board of Education's "Those Who Excel" award.

Honorable mention: Leonard R. Nowicki, Physical Plant Manager, Woodland Hills School District, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Leonard Nowicki oversees the buildings and grounds operations of the 34 facilities that make up Woodland Hills School District. With 35 years in education, he has been a plant manager for the past 20 years.

When a court order forced five school districts to merge in 1981, Nowicki was named plant manager of the newly formed Woodland Hills School District. He was given the task of molding 134 plant positions--all with different job descriptions, contracts, pay scales and fringes--into a new staff with a reasonable contract to meet the needs of the district. Currently, he manages 69 employees and a budget of $5.5 million. Among his other accomplishments:

-Instrumental in floating four bond issues, as well as overseeing more than 50 major construction projects in the district.

-Provided a model security system for all buildings within the district.

-Prepared, with a committee, a master plan to meet ADA requirements within the district.

Current chairman of the facilities management committee of the Pennsylvania Association for School Business Officials and officer of the Western Pennsylvania Buildings and Grounds Administrators Association, he has written numerous documents and articles on school facilities throughout the years. Besides being an avid dancer and performer, he also is very involved with local groups and organizations.

Nowicki shares his thoughts on the challenges facing the school plant profession: "Resting on one's accomplishments is never acceptable. Board members and administrators change, mandates become issues, environmental concerns come to the forefront--and we are expected to manage with less budget dollars and provide the same services while meeting new needs. It certainly has become a struggle for even the most experienced plant managers."

Honorable mention: Joseph A. Travaglino, Director of Buildings and Grounds, East Haven Public Schools, East Haven, Conn.

As director of buildings and grounds for the 4,400-student East Haven Public Schools, Joe Travaglino is responsible for 10 buildings accounting for 560,000 square feet, as well as a 300,000-square-foot high school scheduled to open in September. He supervises 16 custodial and four maintenance staff.

Among his responsibilities include the preparation and implementation of the district's operational and capital-improvement budgets, coordinating OSHA duties, and creating and implementing an ADA management plan. Specific accomplishments include:

-Created an annual building survey to monitor user satisfaction with facilities.

-Developed and implemented a five-year building-improvement plan.

-Instituted a permanent workshop for maintenance staff.

As a method of teaching children to be aware of their surroundings, Travaglino developed a Team Player Award, which is given to students who bring maintenance problems to his attention. Students write him with a building problem. He in turn writes back with a date for repair. Teachers are encouraged to involve students in the building maintenance process.

Travaglino challenges government to recognize the impact buildings have on education, and stresses that school plant directors have much more to offer than "fixing broken windows."

"We need to continue to articulate our position in the educational process," he says. "Educating our children is more than higher test scores. Children need to learn, but they also need to be wrapped in a building that will protect them, not expose them to unsafe conditions."

As vice president of the Connecticut School Buildings and Grounds Association, and director of the National School Plant Management Association, Travaglino is very involved in promoting the school plant profession. He also is very involved in local civic organizations, including serving as chairman of the East Haven Economic Development Commission and Fire Commission.

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