The “unsung heroes” keeping the lights on

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Ben Dahan staff writer

Mops. Monkey wrenches. Paint buckets. Nuts and bolts. Light bulbs. Sheers. Rakes. Wielders. Saws. Hammers. These are all things that can be found in the hands of the members of the maintenance and operations(MNO) department, who are integral in keeping BHUSD running.

“We are in the business of the education,” La Tanya Kirk-Carter, chief administrative officer said. “People don’t realize that there are people behind the scenes making the business run.”

This team of tradesmen, custodians and groundskeepers are tasked with keeping five school campuses and the district office operating, cleaning up after 4,000 kids and maintaining countless pieces of equipment and machinery. They do so at all hours of the day.  

Not only do they keep our schools clean and well maintained, but also safe.

“Anytime I have a safety issue, like the stairs when it first rained, they take care of it,” principal Dave Jackson said. “They provide a huge service in keeping our school a safe place for our students to attend.”

As MNO director Gino Garcia notes, he and his team attempt to remain unnoticed while they do their jobs.

“In a perfect world, nobody knows who we are. We try to get things done and stay in the background,” Garcia said.

A tour of the workshop

The tradesmen (carpenters, locksmiths, plumbers, HVAC repairmen, electricians and painters) of the school district are tasked with fixing what breaks in their respective fields.

“I have found that the individual tradesmen have been very, very good. I have enjoyed my interactions with them,” superintendent Steve Kessler, who has a background in construction, said.

The tradesmen make-do with the improvised workshop set up in 2001 in the wake of the burning down of their actual workshop. It is set up in the second floor of Moreno High.

“The guys don’t care. As long as they have somewhere to hang their hats, they’ll get in there and do a great job,” Garcia said.

Substitute carpenter and locksmith John Jackson cutting wood into blocks for a planter box. Photo by: BEN DAHAN.
Substitute carpenter and locksmith John Jackson cutting wood into blocks for a planter box. Photo by: BEN DAHAN.

 

The consistent theme throughout the building is that every cupboard, room, office, hallway, corner, crevice or any other available space is filled to the brim with as many tools, parts, wires, equipment, and boxes that can fit.

The carpenter’s shop, the domain of substitute carpenter and locksmith John Jackson, is filled with the aroma of sawdust and the sound of whirring saw blades.

 

Nearby is the chaotic office of our two resident plumbers, Arturo Najera and Hector Hernandez. Their desks sit amid a maze of 7-foot tall shelves filled to the brim with plumbing parts, scavenged and new. To add to the chaos, the floor is strewn with boxes, ladders, lockers, heavy tools and canisters.

 

Many of the district’s plumbing systems are old and outdated, using hard-to-find parts that are no longer in circulation.

“That’s where we have a lot of problems, finding parts, because it is older stuff,” Garcia said.

In the corner of the room is an out of place sparkle of gold and purple, the desk of avid Lakers fan Hernandez. Najera’s desk is minimally adorned with a Mexican and American flag.

In stark contrast with this room is the now highly-organized locksmith’s room. The neatness is due to the efforts of locksmith/carpenter

Plumbers office. Photo by: BEN DAHAN.
Plumber’s office. Photo by: BEN DAHAN.

 

Luis Reynoso and Jackson, who had inherited the room a chaotic mess.

 

“I needed to know what we had, what we needed, in order to be prepared to work,” Reynoso said.

The walls of the hallways are still covered with the residue of fire-extinguisher foam from a recent break-in vandalism. All of the ceiling panels are missing to make room for the sprinkler system.

In what used to be a library, the team gathers for the occasional meeting, to fill out timesheets, or to just take a break. The room is filled with a motley assortment of scavenged chairs, the only real similarity being their proneness to fall backwards.

The right side of the room is a wall of shelves, which houses binders fat with information on systems and past repairs, which serves as the team’s paperback central database.

In the middle of a long hallway is the a door that leads to the HVAC office of journeymen Rick Morales and Chuck Vaughn. An old calculator is fixed right above the door handle, mimicking the keypads on some of the other doors. Nearby is a room that holds the supplies of electricians Felix Kagan and Eric Telles.

Three months ago, vandals splattered paint all over the floor and walls of the painter’s area. The lights in the ceiling still have messages painted from the vandals to the team such as “Hi.” Some of the scrawlings are much more obscene.

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Corridor in workshop that leads to mechanic’s Danny Franco’s work area. Photo by: BEN DAHAN.

“It is their version of art,” painter Florentino Guzman said lightheartedly, though he was the one who had to clean up the mess.

Outside sits an assortment of disabled vehicles, all awaiting mechanic Danny Franco’s restorative touch.

In a trailer nearby, where Garcia and assistant operations manager Rick Alexander work, sits Jackie Turner, a high school alumnae and secretary of the MNO department. Her work relieves much of the burden off of Garcia’s and other’s back.

Although this “funky space” serves as the crew’s headquarters, it is far from being where they spend most of their time or do most of their repairs.

They receive and fulfill work orders for certain tasks. However, as Gomez points out, often when they are on location fulfilling an order, they will be asked to do something else while they are there.

“A lot of times when you go to a school to do some work, the principal or the teachers will say, ‘Oh, I also need this done,’” Guzman said.

Cleaning the mess

It is 5:00 a.m. in the morning. The sky is black, the air is cold and stinging. The sharp sound of keys jingling emerges out of the seemingly silent morning. Alfonso Gonzales is fiddling with his key set, trying to open the gate to the school.

He spends the rest of the early hours of the morning cleaning offices and bathrooms, accepting deliveries and getting the school ready for the students. He ends his shift at 1:30 p.m.

“This is my routine. Every day, do the same,” Gonzales said.

The school district has a total of 30 custodians, spread out among the five school sites, who complete similar duties.

Gonzales has been following this routine every day for the past three decades. He will keep to it for another eight months. Then, he plans to retire after working 38 years at BHUSD.

Gonzales is the lead daytime custodian at the high school. He and his fellow custodians are tasked with cleaning up the mess that the school’s various inhabitants make throughout the day, but will often be drafted by students or teachers to help them with some issue or another.

At 2:30 p.m., the night crew files in to start their shift. They perform many of the same or similar tasks, until 11:30 p.m. Gonzales was on the night crew his first seven years at the district.

“Our major battle right now is custodial. We’re too far behind and don’t have enough people, so it’s tough to catch up. If we lose somebody or somebody’s out for a day it kills our momentum. So, that’s what we are battling now,” Garcia said. “We’ll get it, it’s a work in progress.”

Though Gonzales feels that he and his colleagues are appreciated by teachers and administrators, he believes that the students could do more to show their appreciation, even if it means just being a little tidier.

“Well the students, you know, sometimes like to play too much. Throw away food, spill water. That’s what the district pays us to clean up,” Gonzales said. “But, the students should think about the custodians a little bit. We have a lot of work, especially now, because we are short people in the custodial department.”

“Death in the family”

On Saturday, Oct. 8, Nabor Juarez died of a heart attack. He had spent the previous decade and a half as a groundskeeper at BHUSD. This “death in the family” came as a sad and sudden shock to all of the MNO staff.

“It definitely feels like something is missing around here. He’s been around for almost 15 or 16 years,” lead groundskeeper Norman Ysaguirre said.

On Oct. 7, the football field was filled with the typical sounds of a football game, the whistles of the referee, the colliding of players, the intermittent murmur and then shrieks of excitement from the stands. When the game had ended, the field was silent. Juarez was working overtime, putting everything in order. Gonzales was helping him.

“I was helping him move all the stands and everything and he said he didn’t feel well,’” Gonzales said. “People like to work overtime sometimes, because they say they need money. That’s it.”

Gonzales, who had called Juarez’s wife after he had learned of his death, recounts the events that had occurred prior to the death.

“His wife said he came at 11 pm in the night, he watched his program, took a shower, and took his medicine,” Gonzales said. “Saturday, he woke up at 6:00 am, because he forgot to take his alarm off.”

Juarez turned his alarm off and went back to sleep. He never woke up, passing away 30 minutes later.

His colleagues agree that he was a very jovial, friendly man and cared deeply for his family.

“It’s very sad,” Gonzales said. “He’s a nice guy. I know he took care of his family, and he was a friendly guy.”

Nabor was well-known and well-liked by the people at the district he worked with.

“Everybody knew Nabor, they loved Nabor, saw him around every day,” Ysaguirre said. “Everybody misses and loves him.”

Keeping the green

Six groundskeepers tend to the greenery throughout the entire district, including five school campuses and the district office.

“[We’re] responsible for taking care of all the grounds for the buildings and all the locations throughout the district. [We] make sure all the trash and grounds and gardening is fine and upkept properly,” Ysaguirre said.

Donning green uniforms, they can often be found speeding around campus in electric orange carts or green buggies, sometimes transporting plants, tools or gardening supplies.

Due to the accidental cutting of a water main during the construction, what little front lawn that is open to the students at the high school does not get watered.

Nevertheless, Ysaguirre believes that his and his team’s work is very helpful, if not integral, to the maintenance of the good atmosphere of education throughout the district.

“[We ensure] everything’s looking good in the schools so that all the kids have a good environment to learn,” Ysaguirre said.

Maintain and serve:

The MNO staff feel as though the hard work and time they put in does not go unnoticed. Neither do the challenges they face.

“They’re really smart guys, and really dedicated, and are a small group for the square footage that we have and the age of our buildings,” Kirk-Carter said.

Though they may not have the easiest job, especially with the increased workload from the modernization construction the district is undergoing, they plan to persevere.

“We kind of adapt and overcome where we can. We do our thing no matter what. We always get the uphill battles but we handle them accordingly,” Garcia said. “It’s all good.”

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