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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Bringing Maintenance and Operations into focus
Strengthening the backbone of our campuses
By Ken Hickok | September | October 2022
Maintenence and Operations (M/O) might not be the sexiest of administrative responsibilities, but it is the backbone of the site and district.
Personnel in these departments are the unsung heroes of campus. It should always be the goal to make sure they are incorporated in campus culture and capital planning. Most importantly, this department needs to be respected and supported in order to lead and function at maximum potential. The entire school community benefits when school leaders help develop practices that support the maintenance and operations teams become valued members of the school community, focus on safety and devote time to long-term planning to address future needs and improvements.
Include maintenance staff to show they are valued
Maintenance staff need to understand how they fit into the bigger picture. This means that administration needs to have collaborative answers to fight off common responses of: “That’s not my job,” “I’m here for the paycheck, or the hours” or “I just do what I’m told.” These phrases are used as a psychological diversion to pass off discontent or distrust. Asking follow-up questions may also cause additional frustration and disenfranchisement if a maintenance staff member has not been provided with an opportunity to share collective ownership. Years of neglect hardens even the more dedicated people.
A few ways to build positive relationships with maintenance staff include:

  1. Inviting them to staff meetings. This may seem like no-brainers, but it is important that maintenance and operations staff meet the rest of the staff. The main goal is to understand everyone is a part of a school team and without each other, the wheels are more likely to fall off.
  2. Get to know what each M/O staff member does. Schedule time to shadow M/O staff to better understand what they do and most important how they do it. There is a massive difference between staff that are always assigned tasks and staff that are free to take on extras as they see fit. Promote autonomy and ownership within staff so they can work on issues they see as they move through their day. Not only does this prove value, judgment and respect, but it breeds inclusion and respect among team members.
  3. Make sure that your M/O staff members are included in any and all staff appreciation events throughout the year. With the schedules that our M/O people have, it is easy to overlook them when planning celebrations. In my opinion, it is not good enough to “save the custodian some pizza” from the lunch time activities you had for the teaching staff.
Focusing on safety
With the current state of education in continual flux, it is incumbent on administrators to prepare for all types of outcomes. No other administrative responsibility requires more of a worst-case outlook than maintenance and operations. Mainly because at the end of the day, site disrepair can create challenging problems. However, with proper leadership, M/O can become the shining star of the district. To better focus observations to account for worst-case scenarios, it is important to pay attention to safety details.
Safety walks are a necessity — no two ways about it. It is not enough to rely on staff to report safety issues or submit a work request. Administrators need to be out, visible and note issues on site. An administrator who is seen is someone who cares can be trusted. Walking in the paths of students and staff to see firsthand what is seen makes administration aware of potential challenges and demonstrates empathy.
Plan for the future and envision potential opportunity
Long-term planning is a benefit and a curse. It can set the course for the next 50 years on sites, or it can be seen as distracting and a waste of time. Long-term planning is best explained with an anecdote. Four or five months into my first year as an assistant principal, my principal took me on a safety walk. On our walk we arrived at the northwest corner of the campus, which had become a major mud puddle from the rain that feel a couple days before. This was an undeveloped corner of campus only used as an easement for those that walked home. My principal asked, “What do you see?”
Wanting to show her what I learned I said, “A slip and fall hazard.” She stared straight ahead and described in detail a culinary building with teaching classrooms, food storage and a full kitchen with a café that would be accessible to the community. Nine years later, she watched the board cut the ribbon on a brand-new building, complete with two full career technical education pathways and seven additional FTE for her site.
As a M/O administrator, it’s important to create plans that have one foot in the present and one foot ten years down the road. Furthermore, administration should be able to articulate short term facility plans (one- to three -year) and long term (7-10 year) plans as well. When these goals are shared with M/O as part of a team, they can provide better support for a school site.
Final thoughts
Hiring, training and retention are the ways to build the most efficient and effective M/O department. Going to job fairs or posting opening on web sites are great ways to get your school’s name out in front of the employable public. As an administrator, invest the time and energy in finding people that are a good fit for your needs. Don’t be afraid to repost openings if you don’t find someone during the first round. In addition, it always helps to have a solid training plan for the new people that are hired. Starting with a professional tone and work expectations the first time you meet with maintenance workers and periodically checking in with them often during the first six months can go a long way in establishing positive culture.
My personal greatest achievement in this area is not the complete $6.2 million renovation of a few rundown athletic fields into an athletic complex that is the envy of most high schools, but rather it was a time when a 17-year veteran teacher came like a Tasmanian devil into my office and thrust his hand out. I shook his hand as he said, “It has rained for the last five days, and my room is bone dry.” This teacher’s room had flooded after heavy rains every year he worked there. I worked, poked and pleaded for three years to get it repaired properly — not to keep a difficult teacher out of my office, but to make sure that his focus was on his students.
Administrators may never be seen or promoted as the heroes of education, but they can serve as bridges to build effective teams. When M/O becomes a valued and participatory part of a school team, it allows everyone to focus on student needs and outcomes instead of physical plant issues.
Ken Hickok is an assistant principal at Freedom High School in the Liberty Union High School District
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