2012-08-02 / Front Page
Campus upkeep suffering in down economy
Overgrown weeds, dying grass products of budget crunch
Joe Cervi, director of Conejo Valley Unified School District’s maintenance and operations, was surprised to see thick vegetation that hadn’t been trimmed in years on some campuses when he took the job last December.
Reduced staff coupled with efforts to reduce water use have left weeds and dry landscapes at some CVUSD schools.
In 2010, faced with another year of budget cuts from the state, the district eliminated three maintenance positions, leaving just two four-member crews responsible for the upkeep of more than 2 million square feet of buildings and nearly 550 acres of property.
Cervi said the lack of manpower was apparent when he received a tour of the schools.
“It’s not acceptable, it’s never acceptable. . . . Schools must be safe for children.”
Superintendent Jeff Baarstad said weeds are not a result of neglect but of a lack of funding.
He said everything is done to keep cuts out of the classroom, and that includes letting go of some grounds staff but investing in better-performing equipment such as a turf mower and bucket truck that allows for safer tree maintenance.
“I walk around our campuses and they look pretty good,” he said. “I do feel like we’re doing the best we can.”
The district’s high schools are each served by two groundskeepers and two maintenance employees in addition to the two crews that oversee more than 30 district sites.
Crews perform routine maintenance at campuses every two weeks during the school year. Cervi wants a smaller team to work on campuses weekly, although “there’s no campus that goes unvisited for any one-week period of time,” he said.
Despite regular visits, vegetation at some sites hadn’t been touched in five years, he said.
To fix the problem, both maintenance crews were assigned to several campuses this summer for deep weeding and clearing up areas behind schools, said Linda Bekeny, assistant superintendent in charge of business services.
The projects took crews away from regular summer maintenance at schools, Baarstad said, but assigning district employees to the task means CVUSD doesn’t have to hire outside contractors.
Cervi said they have spent up to a week cutting, mowing and plowing at each site, including Acacia, Weathersfield and Walnut elementaries, Redwood Middle School and Bridges Charter School.
Under the director’s leadership, staff is focused on getting campuses back into shape.
“Maintenance before tried to do so much in the way of new landscaping construction,” he said. “We have to go back to the basics.”
Efforts to conserve water have also interrupted basic maintenance.
“Irrigation is another big beast,” Cervi said. “The district made the decision years ago to cut irrigation in a lot of places.”
Now only the bases of trees are watered, leaving the surrounding grass to die and give way to weeds, Cervi said.
“It looks absolutely atrocious,” he said. “A big area with no grass and weeds growing . . . doesn’t have a landscaped look.”
And because grass requires so much water, the district is reducing the amount of turf on its playfields and filling bare spots with wood chips, a money-saving move that a lot of people don’t like because they prefer to see green fields, Baarstad said.
Irrigation is also turned off in parkways between campus fences and sidewalks.
“I know homeowners object. But there’s a limit to what we can do,” Baarstad said. “Inside the fences we do pretty darn good. We do as good as anyone, if not better.”
Although CVUSD limits its use of water, which is kept on during breaks, the district still spends about $900,000 a year on the utility, Bekeny said.
Caring for the district’s many trees is another big expense, Cervi said.
“The amount of trees that CVUSD has is astronomical,” he said. “(With) trees that don’t look well-kept, the immediate impression is that the campus is not well-kept.”
The director said CVUSD will continue its water conservation efforts while working to improve the appearance of its landscaping for the benefit of schools and the community.
To fill the barren spaces around trees, Cervi plans to add mulch until bushes can be planted.
“If there’s no way to do something different we have to go back to watering,” Cervi said. “I’m not going to condone turning off the water. . . . That’s unacceptable from a neighborly perspective.”
Baarstad said there’s debate about using more water as the district tries to find a way to save money in that area.
“It gets really expensive really fast,” he said.