Making Prevention Routine

April 1, 2001
Schools that focus attention on roof maintenance are more likely to avoid leaks and costly repairs.

Clouds darken the sky, thunderclaps rumble through buildings, and the skies are about to unleash a downpour.

It can be a trying time for a school or university. Will your maintenance staff be scrambling for buckets to collect the water leaking from the ceiling from this latest rainstorm? Without an effective roof maintenance program in place, they might be.

“We don't have any preventive programs,” says Joe St. Martin, supervisor of general maintenance for the Santa Ana (Calif.) Unified School District. “The only time we check the roofs is after it rains. It's like a fire drill.”

Ideally, every institution would have the resources to have staff available to inspect and guard against leaks and other problems on their roofs. But with limited budgets and many areas competing for the same funds, roof maintenance in schools often means patching leaks rather than circumventing the problem with preventive maintenance.

Some institutions are realizing that establishing a maintenance program with adequate staff trained specifically in roofing can head off problems before they come crashing down on a school.

“We realized that if we didn't want to spend every rainy day running around with thousands of buckets, we needed to do something,” says Steve Snarr, director of maintenance for the 55,000-student Prince William County (Va.) School District.


America's schools have been struggling for years with deferred maintenance, and inattention to roofs is one of the main trouble spots. The U.S. Department of Education's report, Condition of America's Public School Facilities 1999, found that 22 percent of all school buildings had roofs that administrators rated as less than adequate (see sidebar).

Without the staffing to monitor roof conditions regularly, many schools are forced to react to trouble rather than try to prevent it.

“When somebody screams, we're there,” says St. Martin. “If there's a leak we patch it. If it works, great. If not, we go up there again.”

One problem is that maintenance crews often are called upon to do a wide array of jobs. In Santa Ana, the district has four two-person crews that are responsible not only for maintenance of some 60 roofs, but also fencing, plastering, pouring concrete and other chores in the 61,000-student district.

“We don't have roofers per se — just general maintenance workers,” says St. Martin.

Roofing experts recommend that schools should inspect their roofs twice a year, but many institutions are spread too thin to meet that goal.

“We're doing it probably once a year,” says Brian Barsaleau, director of service center operations for the 40,000-student Oklahoma City School District. “We respond on an as-needed basis.”

To help make up for the lack of inspections, Barsaleau encourages all his maintenance staff to be vigilant for signs of roof problems — blisters on the surface, flashings coming loose, stained ceiling tiles — as they complete their other work.


About a decade ago, school officials in Prince William County decided that because of the increasing age of its buildings, the district needed to address its roofing repair and maintenance needs more systematically.

“We were playing catch-up for a lot of years,” says Snarr.

Now, Prince William County has a seven-person crew specifically dedicated to maintaining 5.5 million square feet of roofing in the school district's 70 buildings. The district trains the workers so that they are familiar with the different types of roofing systems used, and the crews typically inspect each roof three times a year.

“We try to do it right after the leaf season, then in the early spring, and again when the weather is better,” says Snarr.

Making sure that routine steps are taken — cleaning gutters, clearing drains, removing bottles and other debris — can help prolong the life of a roof.

“With proper maintenance, we can make our roofs last longer,” says Snarr.


Another key to making a roof last is installing the one most appropriate for the building.

“We look at our buildings carefully to decide what types of roofs would be best,” says Snarr. “We have single-ply roofs, two-ply modified, metal roofs. It depends on a lot of factors — the structure of the building, what is contained in them, how long we expect to use the building.”

Along with the right roof, officials emphasize the importance of selecting the right roof installer.

“The most important thing is the contractor and how it is installed,” says Barsaleau. “If that is done correctly, the roof will last.”

To improve the odds of getting a good roof for his school district, Snarr says he pays special attention to the warranties roofing contractors offer.

“In some cases, we will ask companies to modify their warranties…to help us get on a little more even playing field,” says Snarr. “If they tell us no, we say, fine — we're not using their roof.”

Kennedy can be reached at [email protected] .

Rating the roofs

The U.S. Department of Education's report, Condition of America's Public School Facilities 1999, found that roofing problems are more likely to be found in schools with smaller enrollments, with greater minority populations and with larger numbers of poor children.

The report also found that overcrowded schools (more than 105 percent of capacity) were more likely to have less-than-adequate roofs than those that were under capacity (less than 95 percent of capacity).

PERCENTAGE OF SCHOOLS THAT RATED THE CONDITION OF THEIR ROOFS AS LESS THAN ADEQUATEAll public schools 22 Elementary 22 High 26 Combined 18 SCHOOL TYPE Central city 23 Urban fringe 19 Rural/small town 25 Source: Condition of America's Public School Facilities 1999,

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