PHOENIX, AZ — Like many schools across the nation, public schools in Arizona have seen better days.

We’re not talking about the students or teachers but the buildings themselves. Basically, they’re fall-ing apart. Reports in the local newspapers chronicle schools whose roofs are falling in, or whose heating and air conditioning systems are inadequate and sometimes nonexistent. One story profiled a school in which a large tree was growing in the gutters because no one had ever cleaned them out.

While these problems can be found throughout the state, some less affluent school districts claimed to have had significantly more problems. As a result, several school districts sued the state in 1991, stating that the funding system for public education was unfair. As in many other states, local property taxes were used to build new schools and maintain existing ones, and poorer school districts felt they got the short end of the stick.

Because of that lawsuit, legislation was enacted in 1998 that dramatically reformed the way K-12 schools are constructed in Arizona. Known as Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today), the law established a fund for the purpose of correcting deficiencies in existing school facilities by June 30, 2003.

It is estimated that it will cost $1.07 billion to bring all of Arizona’s 1,210 schools to state-approved minimum adequacy guidelines by the June 30, 2003 deadline. Of that, it’s estimated that 1,095 of the total 5,900 renovation projects will involve hvac systems, for a total of $147 million dedicated to repairing and replacing hvac equipment. With all the money now available, local contractors are excited about the influx of work that will be coming their way.

But the burning question is: Who will be available to repair all of these schools? The State School Facilities Board, which oversees the Students FIRST law, has recognized that the demand for contractors could exceed the supply. As a result, they’ve budgeted an extra $63 million in case prices go up due to a contractor shortage. The board has threatened to look for out-of-state contractors in the event that local contractors jack up their prices too high.

Some think that there are definitely not enough qualified contractors to do the work. Others think that the downturn in other areas of the local economy will provide enough skilled labor to get the job done. However, both sides concur that it will be extremely difficult to perform all the renovations by the 2003 date.

The contractor shortage is absolutely real, says Joe Nichter, president, Tri-City Mechanical.

Not Enough to Go Around

That contractor shortage is absolutely real, says Joe Nichter, president, Tri-City Mechanical, Chandler, AZ. “It’s especially true on the larger work. There are only five or six mechanical contractors in town who can handle a large renovation job and be able to have the manpower to get it done.”

Nichter’s company was recently chosen to perform the $1.75 million mechanical retrofit for Mesa Junior High School under the Students FIRST law. Nichter is looking forward to bringing that school up to date, stating that the schools’ mechanical systems are old and inefficient.

“That particular school has no individual classroom control, which makes it very uncomfortable for faculty and students. In one building, there is an air handler that services five classrooms. That air handler blows into all the classrooms and doesn’t take into consideration any load requirements. The teacher on the end, his thermostat is basically opening and closing the registers,” says Nichter.

He estimates that the Mesa Junior High School project will take his company most of the summer to complete. As a result, Nichter doubts that they will bid on too many more school projects, which are now being posted fast and furious, as the Students FIRST law has made the funds available.

“The summer work is pretty stressful. You have to be on the jobsite and done by the middle of August. It includes a lot of overtime and weekend work and things like that just to meet the schedules. So, one or two projects is enough for one contractor,” says Nichter.

Union Point of View

Phoenix has always been big in the semiconductor industry, but as noted in all the newspapers, the industry has hit a rough patch. That could provide the labor needed to fix the schools, says Lou Jennings, vice president, Metro Mechanical.

“The 2003 deadline is certainly an aggressive time frame, given the amount of work statewide. However, I think a unique situation exists for the unionized building trades work. At this time the microelectronics industry is starting to taper off in new construction, like Intel. Motorola has slowed down in-house retrofit projects as well. I think there will be a skilled workforce available coming off of those jobs.”

Jennings notes that while school work is not as technical as hospital or cleanroom work, the methods and means are about the same. “Because of this, I think the unionized workforce will be available and will be positioned to handle the lion’s share of this in-state school work by 2003,” he says. “The key union contractors in the state have the existing infrastructure to manage the additional workforce, so it’s not that you’d need more contractors; you can have less contractors with more skilled craftspeople available.”

Metro Mechanical doesn’t have any specific school projects lined up under the Students FIRST law, but Jennings is confident that will change soon. In the past, the company has formed a strategic alliance with Honeywell Inc., which bids the contracts from design phase to the landscape, then partners with Metro Mechanical to perform the hvac, plumbing, and sheet metal work.

“While there are a lot of folks gearing up for this large school work, until you’re really sure about time frames, location, and procurement procedures, it’s a moving target,” says Jennings.

New construction in the microelectronics industry is starting to taper off, and there will be skilled workers available coming off those jobs, says Lou Jennings, vice president, Metro Mechanical.


One of the biggest problems is that all the work needs to be done by June 2003, which isn’t a lot of time for union or nonunion workers — especially when you consider that most of the work needs to be performed during the summer break.

Many of the schools, like Mesa Junior High, are in great need. It often comes to a point where a school’s faculty doesn’t even want to teach in the classrooms because they’re too uncomfortable. Given the recent teacher shortage (and Arizona’s already very low teacher salaries), that could cause a major problem.

Ed Boot, deputy director of the State School Facilities Board, Phoenix, says they’re trying to work on the summer issue. “We are trying to be more flexible and not require all of our work to be done in the summer. But districts are really reluctant and resistant to that kind of change. But if we say there’s only a six- or eight-week window where we can do all the hvac work, we know there won’t be enough contractors for that.”

What helps is that many school districts are no longer on a uniform calendar. Usually this means that districts have different breaks throughout the year, so contractors can get in and get the work done.

Nichter notes that it would help if the State Facilities Board spent a whole lot more time planning the work and letting it out earlier. “If they would let it out at the beginning of the year, prepurchase some of the equipment, preplan on some of the subcontractors ahead of time, I think the work would go a lot smoother,” he said.

As it is, a contractor can’t expect to see the equipment on the jobsite until sometimes only three weeks before completing the job. That’s because the equipment isn’t ordered and released for production until the state releases the contract to the contractor. “You have to do a lot of preplanning, prefabrication, and preparation to get ready for all the equipment before it arrives at the jobsite,” says Nichter.

That — and the potential contractor shortage — is definitely going to make for an even longer, hotter summer.

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Sidebar: Maintenance Still a Concern

Once Arizona schools are outfitted with their shiny new hvac systems, one question remains: Who’s going to take care of them? One of the reasons the systems are in such poor shape is that nobody took care of them in the first place.

That’s a definite problem, acknowledges Ed Boot, deputy director of the School Facilities Board, Phoenix. “I would say that 70% of our problems out there are due to lack of maintenance, 20% is old age, and 10% would be design and construction errors. Overwhelmingly, what we saw was that the districts had no preventive maintenance programs and no understanding of the equipment. As a result of that, when equipment broke, it broke.”

Boot notes that they sometimes found nonfunctioning hvac equipment that was only six years old. He estimates that many of the hvac systems that needed major repairs or replacement were under 10 years old. “Out of the 229 districts, probably 200 do not have good maintenance programs,” says Boot.

The reasons for that are basically money and expertise. The districts are always hard pressed to come up with enough dollars, but there’s also no real interest in coming up with the money for things that no one is talking about — until they break. “I think in some cases it’s having too many other things on your plate and not caring enough about your building, because your building doesn’t yell and scream and everybody else is,” notes Boot.

The other problem is that the expertise isn’t there. In many cases a 60,000-sq-ft school has one person who’s a custodian and a maintenance person and maybe even runs some of the transportation. This individual probably doesn’t have a lot of formal education or training in maintenance and really doesn’t have the time to get into it too deeply because of all his other duties.

So how will the state make sure that the new equipment will be maintained? Simply stated, they’re not. The legislature voted down a measure that would allow the State School Facilities Board to inspect each school every two years to determine whether the districts were properly maintaining their systems.

“We’re working on trying to come up with some formalized system of help for districts as far as preventive maintenance is concerned. But we’re a small department, and we’re a little overwhelmed right now. Hopefully we’ll have something in place by the end of the year,” says Boot.

Publication date: 07/09/2001