State funding cuts and failures by the district to pass a budget override have left the Sunnyside district’s maintenance department spread thin, and half the size it was six years ago, workers and administrators said.
The department, which is responsible for servicing 24 buildings on 350 acres of district property, went from having 56 people in 2010 to 26 now — 24 workers and two office employees.
The cuts have led to more pressure on the small staff who are pulled in different directions to fill in the gaps, said Fernando Valencia, assistant director of maintenance for the Sunnyside Unified School District.
“This was the department that was hit the hardest and most frequently,” he said.
The department lost nearly $1 million since 2010, said Hector Encinas, the district’s chief financial officer. Sunnyside as a whole had about $17 million in budget cuts.
“The Governing Board’s direction was to try to make those cuts as far away from the classrooms,” he said. “Operations is as far away as you can get from classroom.”
The result of cutting funding from the maintenance department has inevitably led to “suffering in terms of building needs,” Encinas said.
The district has been forced to think of more cost-effective options, which means eliminating in-house positions in favor of one-time vendors and contractors, he said. There are no more in-house painters or heating and air-conditioning technicians, he said. There are also fewer plumbers, carpenters, welders and electricians.
Often times, having fewer people to do more means workers are reacting to maintenance emergencies rather than spending time on preventative measures, such as painting and maintaining building roofs.
Painting is limited to keeping up an acceptable appearance, according to a lower minimum standard, Encinas said. Roofing work has to wait until there is a leak.
The maintenance department has been making things work with what they’ve got by prioritizing more urgent repairs and projects and through cross-training workers to be versatile in several disciplines, said Valencia, the department’s assistant director.
The added pressure is compounded during especially busy times like graduation, he said.
“We’re scrambling a lot to get everything ready,” he said.
On a recent morning, Sunnyside maintenance workers Art Ortega and Dave Hack were part of a crew getting Desert View High School’s restrooms near the football field ready for the graduation ceremony May 24.
Crews were hosing down the ground just outside the restrooms and fixing the sinks and doors of the restrooms.
“We get pulled and bounced around a lot,” Hack said.
Hack, by trade, is an irrigation specialist. His partner, Ortega, is a carpenter. But nowadays they do anything from pouring concrete to painting walls to putting up fences.
There used to be smaller teams within the department that worked completely separately, the workers said. Now, everyone sort of does everything. In a way, they said that has helped the department unite. “If they need help, we help,” Ortega said. “If we need help, they help.”
Seeing the department downsize over the past six years, the two men said they are worried for their jobs, especially with seeing other districts completely outsourcing their maintenance work.
“There’s always the fear factor,” Hack said. “Nobody wants to lose their job.”
“It’s kind of a scary situation,” Ortega said.
The department’s members came together to form its own employee advisory group, which the men say are included in conversations about what’s happening in the district.
And since Steve Holmes took over as superintendent in the past school year, Hack and Ortega said they felt like they had more of a say in the district.
“He’s always around,” Hack said. “He will stop and shake your hand. It’s exciting for us.”
Despite the hectic schedules, the workers said they have pride in their work at Sunnyside. Hack is a Tucson native and Ortega, who is a district alumnus, has had children and grandchildren in Sunnyside schools.
“It’s a job, but we do it because we love it,” Ortega said.