Shivering students become a hot issue

Boiler know-how goes the way of laid-off school janitors

As if there aren't enough reasons for an adolescent to disdain school, some Portland students have a new reason this year: On some days, their schools have no heat.

More than five dozen Portland schools had heating problems earlier this fall. And a number of schools continue to go without heat for a few hours, or a few days, at a time.

'We've taught in our coats,' said Roosevelt High School teacher Eileen Wende, who especially remembers a Thursday, Friday and Monday last month when, she said, the North Portland high school had no heat. 'It was 55 degrees in here,' Wende said. 'The kids were all huddled and kind of shivering.'

The problems seem to stem from new school janitors mixing with old school boilers.

To save money, the Portland school district laid off all of its school custodians last year and replaced them in the fall with a nonprofit contract company that pays its workers slightly above minimum wage.

None of the new janitors has experience working with the district's old and cantankerous boilers, however, and most haven't participated in a one-day boiler familiarization workshop the company offers through a local community college. Meanwhile, turnover among the janitors is already high.

Accidents happen

Portland schools have suffered a range of problems as a result, including the heating problems and at least three boiler accidents. Two were fuel oil spills Ñ at Fernwood Middle School in November and Bridger Elementary last week Ñ caused by janitors trying to service boilers. Beaumont Middle School, meanwhile, had a boiler 'meltdown' in December when a boiler ran low on water.

A state boiler inspector attributed that accident to mechanical failure but also raised concerns about how well the janitors were keeping service logs and how much janitors knew about maintenance procedures.

Teachers and students are simply concerned about being cold.

'The janitors used to be technical men who were proficient in the operation of mechanical things,' said Verna Marshall, a third-grade teacher at Northeast Portland's Sabin Elementary, who remembers one day when water was spewing out of several thermostats in the building. 'These people that they've substituted, they only do housecleaning.'

Marshall said Sabin's new head janitor this fall quit after a couple of months in the job: 'She said, 'I'm not comfortable running the boiler, and I don't want to take that responsibility.' '

'They've been thrown into something that they're totally unprepared for,' former Portland custodian Mark Schnoor said of the new janitors. 'Malfunctioning boilers can do worse than not heat a building; they can explode,' he said. 'They are very dangerous pieces of equipment.'

Boiler lessons continue

Don Larson, the district's assistant facilities director, acknowledged that district officials are getting more 'cold building' calls this year Ñ about three or four a week, compared with one or two a week last year.

He also acknowledged that the new janitors don't know the buildings' systems as well as the former janitors.

'You're not comparing apples to apples when you talk about someone who's been in the building six months compared to somebody who's been in the building for eight, nine, 10 years,' Larson said.

But Larson said he believes that most janitors are appropriately performing daily and weekly maintenance on the boilers. And, he said, they know to call district maintenance workers when there's a problem they can't handle. He said maintenance workers then generally fix the problem the day they're called.

Larson also said that the new janitors are continually offered one-day boiler training.

'I think it's gone better than we anticipated Ñ except for the startup,' Larson said of the early heating problems. 'Once we got through that, I think it's gone well.'

Not all teachers would agree.

But they're learning to adjust, several said.

'I had kids move around the room,' said Roosevelt's Wende. 'I told them, 'If you're feeling cold, just walk around the room.' '

And at Beaumont, where teacher Mavis Randklev said that for much of the year the heat has worked only in alternating parts of the building, people have learned to live with the cold.

'People are kind of resilient,' she said. 'If it's a cold day, they just dress in layers.'

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