Program expedites isle school repairs
Staff reassigned to the education department cut the red tape that let problems linger
Clicking open a program on her computer, Moanalua Middle School Vice Principal Lisa Nagamine types in a request for a campus bathroom to be retiled and clicks "send."
It all took less than a minute, a vast improvement over a previous system.
But the best part of a new Department of Education way of handling school repair and maintenance needs is that a work crew will respond in a matter of days.
"In the past, workers would show up and I'd be like: 'Who are you? Why are you here?' because I put in the request so long ago that I forgot about it," Nagamine said. "But now they come so fast that we're caught up on everything we need fixed."
Nagamine is one of many Oahu school administrators now pinching themselves over the new setup, introduced this school year, which is helping them pounce on the all-too-common concrete cracks, leaky roofs and busted toilets that pose healthy and safety risks in Hawaii's aging schools.
Last July 1, the Department of Education absorbed more than 200 Oahu staff from the Department of Accounting and General Services, which formerly performed such routine school repair and maintenance jobs.
The DOE is now using that staffing to address repairs at Oahu schools on its own, eliminating a layer of bureaucracy that had allowed past facilities problems to fester.
"It removed the whole 'us and them' thing," said Rae Loui, the DOE's assistant superintendent for business services, who oversaw the divorce from DAGS. "We're in charge of our own destiny now."
The department's backlog of such repair jobs on Oahu has since dropped from nearly 3,000 on July 1 to around 1,200 last week, or about two weeks of work.
That is despite a constant flood of new repair requests, known as "work orders" -- more than 600 last week alone.
Beginning next month, crews are expected to be so caught up that they will start focusing on preventive maintenance in schools to stop problems before they occur.
The school system still faces a well-chronicled backlog of more than half a billion dollars worth of unfunded construction projects and larger repair and maintenance needs statewide.
At Salt Lake Elementary, for example, teachers and students have waited years for air conditioning and interior walls to separate multiple classes now held in a single, large, stuffy room.
The wait continues, but at least now the school worries less about its existing facilities, said Vice Principal Aaron Kimata.
"Every work order I put in is for something that has been affecting a teacher or a student or a staff member. But because they're getting fixed so much faster now, it allows us to focus on other things," he said.
Previously, submitting a work order meant filling out one of several forms, faxing it in, and crossing one's fingers that the problem would be fixed within the school year.
Now, school administrators and custodians enter them into a Web-based order processing system known as Maximo, commonly used by military bases.
It is now available at all Oahu schools and used by about 170 of them. Neighbor island schools are still serviced by DAGS.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Moanalua Middle School Vice Principal Lisa Nagamine uses Maximo, a Web-based order processing system, to request repairs at her school. She said Maximo has streamlined the process. Work orders are being processed in about a week, a far cry from the weeks it took in the past.
The orders are seen immediately by staff at a central response center, who acknowledge receipt within a few hours and forward them to maintenance personnel.
The status of each school's work orders is displayed in real time, a big change for principals accustomed to watching requests disappear into a virtual black hole.
Work orders can be ranked as an "emergency call" requiring action within two hours, a "trouble call" with a response window of 48 hours, or a "regular call."
Even the regular calls are being addressed within a week or so, a far cry from the past, Nagamine said.
"I used to have people show up for work orders that were put in by the previous vice principal," she said.
Facilities headaches have typically taken up between one quarter and one half of Nagamine's time, but the DOE intends to change that, said Loui.
"Our goal is to take as much of the facilities work as possible off the plates of principals so they can focus on students and learning," she said.
Work crews in Oahu's four districts have been spending up to 12 weeks servicing the needs of schools in specific areas before moving on.
But they are now so ahead that they have "broken the cycle," moving on to the next area early, said Bill Gebhardt, engineer with the DOE's repair and maintenance section.
As a result, the cycles will be reduced to eight weeks beginning in January. In districts that are particularly caught up, DOE crews will begin walk-throughs of schools to spot and address future problems.
The department hopes the walk-throughs will help check the growth of the backlog of larger construction and repair needs, which are farmed out to outside contractors, by nipping small problems in the bud before they become big ones.
In addition, the adopted DAGS staff will begin separate, school-by-school comprehensive facilities assessments early in the year, beginning with a pilot assessment of Ala Wai Elementary School.
The department, which plans to ask the Legislature this spring for an additional $328 million for various facilities needs, also believes that if the assessment pilot can be expanded to all schools it will yield a clearer picture of overall school needs, possibly strengthening the DOE's hand in future funding requests.