District to demote dozens of janitor-engineers

Minneapolis Public Schools

A Minneapolis Public Schools plan to reorganize the Plant Operations Department will result in demotions for dozens of building engineers and pay cuts for approximately 30 of the most senior building engineers starting on July 1.

About 30 of the district’s 54 most senior building engineers, known as engineers-in-charge, will be placed into senior custodian positions, which will come with a pay decrease of up to about $4 an hour. The district will also place assistant engineers-in-charge, of which there are 42, into senior-custodial roles, but their rate of pay will remain the same.

Building engineers do everything from cleaning the schools and filling work orders to operating and maintaining boilers. However, some of the 50 employees temporarily assigned into those positions don’t have the proper licensing to perform boiler work, according to MPS’ Chief Operations Officer, Karen DeVet.

The plan will ensure that employees who perform that work have appropriate licensure, she said. It will also allow for more custodial support in schools and save the district money as it grapples with a $28 million budget gap.

First-year Superintendent Ed Graff has proposed a 2.5-percent reduction to school allocations and a 10-percent reduction to central services for 2017-18.

The plan is a version of one originally presented to the School Board in 2012 that called for eliminating the engineer-in-charge position and replacing it with a smaller number of “team leader” positions. The intent was to have fewer licensed engineers and more custodians, School Board chair Rebecca Gagnon said.

Some engineers and teachers contend that it’s critical to have a licensed boiler operator in each building, however. They say someone should be on site in case something goes wrong with the boilers.

“Buildings as old as ours need constant attention from trained professionals,” Roosevelt High School teacher and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers executive board member Jill Jacobson said in the statement. “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.”

Tony Newman, president of the Minneapolis Schools Association of Custodians and Engineers, did not comment on whether he thinks each building needed a licensed engineer on site. A MACE statement said union members “strongly believe” the district needs to increase the Plant Operations Department’s budget to allow for more licensed positions to attend to the boilers.

That would allow for an increase in the number of positions, including higher level ones, Newman said.

He said the 50 temporarily detailed employees will return to their lower rate of pay in the new plan.

Ernie Gonzales, the engineer-in-charge at Roosevelt and a former assistant engineer-in-charge at Southwest High School, said his school “absolutely needs” a head engineer with a boiler-operator’s license in the building.

Gonzales said there was a situation at Roosevelt a few months ago where a sprinkler head blew, causing more than 800 gallons of water to spill into the bandroom. He said his understanding is that a senior custodian would not be able to take care of that situation.

About half-a-dozen other engineers contacted for this story would not speak on the record because of fear of retribution.

15 physical plant operators

Fifteen employees will be responsible for boiler operation and maintenance districtwide under the new plan, in a new position called physical plant operator. Two utility engineers will back up the physical plant operators.

The district will draw from its pool of engineers-in-charge to fill the physical plant operator jobs. Those positions are an increase in pay of about 5 percent on average

The remaining engineers-in-charge will be placed as senior custodians, as will assistant engineers-in-charge.

Each building will have one lead employee in the new senior-custodial job, DeVet said. That person will be able to troubleshoot but won’t be licensed for daily record keeping and inspections of the boilers.

“We are building a sustainable plan to ensure that our buildings are maintained at or above regulatory guidelines,” said DeVet, who joined the district in December after years in the foodservice industry.

“Prudent and attentive” manner

State law says that all boilers must be maintained and attended by an operating engineer in a “prudent and attentive” manner. It says the engineers must maintain a logbook and consider factors such as the boiler’s size or capacity, its condition, the extent of a building’s public occupancy and past maintenance history.

The law recommends a series of daily checks and observations, such as testing the condition of water inside the boiler.

DeVet said boilers require a maintenance log saying they have been checked every 48 hours.

David Monsour, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 70, which represents custodian-engineers in St. Paul Public Schools, said state law says an engineer does not have to be on site when the boiler is in operation. He said the boiler has to be checked daily during the heating season and every 24 hours on weekends.

However, Monsour said that “the smarter school districts” have someone with a boiler-operator’s license in buildings all the time.

“If the building’s occupied by the public, to me it makes more sense,” he said.

Gonzales, the engineer-in-charge at Roosevelt, said he performs engineering functions, such as testing the boilers and ensure that pumps are running, every day. He said the 17 new positions could maintain all of the district’s boilers in a perfect world, but at an almost 100-year-old building such as Roosevelt, “a lot of things have to be maintained.”

He said losing the engineer-in-charge position would be harder for him than the financial cut. He also criticized the district for its plan to place the 15 physical plant operators on a six-month probationary period.

“Aging workforce”

DeVet said the boiler workforce is difficult to attract and maintain, noting an “aging workforce” among the district’s engineers-in-chief.

The new structure will allow the district to utilize the most experienced engineers for boiler work and will allow site-based employees to keep the buildings safe, she said.

The district’s plan came to public attention because of Jacobson, the Roosevelt teacher and MFT board member, who criticized it at the April 18 School Board meeting. The teacher’s union released a statement two days later calling on the School Board to preserve the positions until the proposed cuts are publicly debated.

Harry Grigsby, who was president of the engineer’s former union, SEIU Local 63, from 2010 to 2013, said he didn’t recall hearing a restructuring conversation around the roles of building engineers when he was president.

“This must have been an in-house something,” he said. “If they even attempted to do something like this, it wouldn’t have worked. There’s too much that the EICs and the assistants do.”