By: William Chatfield, CFD, MSBO Board President-Elect, Director of Operations, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools
If you read that headline and thought “what’s the matter with this guy – I love August?!?,” I get it. The end of August means the end of summer and nobody wants summer to end. However, for me, August always holds a surprise and this August involved dealing with bat guano (poop for the uninitiated) and I’ve learned I don’t like it. But I digress.
Hopefully your school year got off to a great start and the operational bugs that inevitably plague us for the first couple weeks of school are a distant memory. Don’t know about you, but I still get butterflies in my stomach the day before school starts, just like I did as a kid. The butterflies are different now. I already know who my friends will or won’t be and I’m good with it. My butterflies come from wondering what’s going to go wrong on the first day of school? Something always goes wrong. We will miss bus stops causing some students to be late. For some reason the clocks at one school will be three minutes off creating untold problems. A chipmunk will chew a wire in the fiber line wreaking havoc with the network. A compressor will fail, it’ll be 90 degrees and the air conditioning won’t work. These, and many more problems, have and will continue to pop up. The good news is you and I are here to solve them.
Back to the bat guano and my aversion to August. For the past three decades I’ve dealt with some big problems in August – I call it the August Surprise – leading to a great deal of stress and requiring a great deal of problem solving. This year it’s bats – or more precisely, bat excrement. Did you know a bat can squeeze through an opening as small as 1/4”? Did you know bats are protected and you’re not allowed to exterminate them with a tennis racket? Did you know they make bat doors that permit bats to leave but not re-enter the building? Did you know that bats return for up to five days trying to regain entry to “their” home. Did you know that bat guano, in large quantities, can spontaneously combust resulting in fire damage? Did you know the clean-up procedure for bats is more expensive than an asbestos abatement project? Having never had a bat problem, I didn’t know these things until recently. With the help of many qualified individuals, we are preparing to move the teacher back into a clean and bat free classroom. Another problem solved by the highly capable maintenance department.
My August surprises have run the gamut (names of districts are concealed to protect the guilty parties). One beautiful August evening, while enjoying the Woodward Dream Cruise, I received a call that power was out at the high school. Odd for a nice day but not unheard of. Turns out, the service line shorted out where it ran under the school to the substation in the basement. By the way, school started in 8 days. We got it done.
One August, the contractor I hired to resurface the tennis courts ran into some financial and legal problems and disappeared. The first tennis match was in two weeks and the courts were unusable. Good luck trying to find another tennis court company to take on your project two weeks before school starts. Coaches, athletes and parents were not happy. The first few matches were scheduled off site, but we eventually got it done.
During one very dry August, the irrigation system failed on the football field, right after a fertilization, resulting in massive areas of burnt grass in the center of the field. Footing was unsafe and without a solution, the first game would be cancelled. After a bit of research and a few phone calls, we had a turf company scheduled to install a brand new midfield days before the game (they had to complete similar repairs to the Cincinnati Bengals field before coming to ours). That was a nail biter, but we got it done.
One final August Surprise involved the opening of a new school that was generating a great deal of community excitement. Imagine hearing the news, just two weeks before school, that the sewer line would not be completed and opening of the new school would be delayed by a week. Think that would put your stomach in knots? School opened a week later than scheduled but it was a great opening day, and all was eventually forgiven.
August Surprises will never end. Things are going to happen. When we’re in the heat of the battle, dealing with upset administrators, teachers, students or parents, trying to solve the problem confronting us can seem daunting. Do your research, utilize all necessary resources, and deal with them the best you can. Communicate with stakeholders (even if you caused the problem), apologize often (especially if you caused the problem), and this too shall pass. And one day, maybe 30 years later, you’ll realize it wasn’t as bad as it seemed at the time.
Utilizing the resources of MSBO will also help. One of the places you can make great connections to deal with future August Surprises is at the annual Facilities Conference being held October 6-8 at Crystal Mountain. While organized for facilities managers, this conference provides excellent training opportunities for business managers, transportation supervisors, food service directors and any number of folks who may wear multiple hats in their district. This event is all about peer to peer training and networking, highlighting the best practices being used in the school facilities industry. If you or somebody in your district needs to know more about improving your school operations, this is a must attend event and it’s a great opportunity for any school business official, regardless of your title. Hope to see you there