Safety concerns raised as engineer ranks thin due to budget cuts


Head engineer, Laurie Furey, waxing floors in the South High band room. With the building currently being understaffed for engineers, South’s engineers have be unable to maintain its’ previous cleaning need. Ms. Reynolds commented on the changes of cleaning ability, “Part of the district’s answer to dialing back the number of engineers is also changing the standard of cleanliness.” Photo: Henry Holcomb

Huge changes to the district’s number of employed engineers are coming after this school year ends. The district’s new efforts to balance Minneapolis’ twenty-two million dollar budget deficit will affect engineers and the schools in a big way. Already at South and throughout the district, engineers are understaffed and face challenges such as low pay.

One of the most pivotal confirmed changes will be regarding the head engineers currently employed across the district. Many head engineers across the district will lose their jobs. Currently each public school across Minneapolis has a head engineer employed and stationed at its location. These engineers do a myriad of jobs but their most vital is being legally licensed to operate the boilers within the building. Head Engineer at South High Laurie Furey spoke of the importance of her job, “me and my assistant have the boiler licenses to keep the buildings open. Legally statewide, if we have a boiler running… you have to have a boiler operator on duty when there are students and staff in the building.”

The budget cuts plan on changing the amount of head engineers and their function inside the district. Assistant Principal Mercedes Reynolds explained the change, “Some of [the head engineers] will be excessed or laid off and some of them will move into these new positions where essentially they will have a portfolio of schools, instead of getting our own head man that just focuses on South High school,” she said. Furey spoke of the focus of the rehired head engineers, “[The district is] having 15 different head engineers with the highest amount of seniority and chief license, going and monitoring all 86 buildings in the district so they’re gonna have one head engineer… monitoring 7 buildings just to go into the boilers [and] do the boiler checks.”

Reynolds highlighted a worry that comes with this change, “It could be a safety concern, specifically the boiler, if something goes wrong with… the boiler system, there’s not necessarily going to be somebody on site to handle that in an emergency type fashion. We would have to call someone and the question becomes ‘how soon could they arrive?’” Furey expanded on what ‘going wrong’ could mean in stark terms, “A boiler is a thing to heat up the building… but it’s also a time bomb,” she said. “With… no one in the afternoon to monitor the boilers, if something happens… I wouldn’t want to some time in the future hear about a boiler explosion and people dying because of budget cuts… [The district isn’t] just dealing with people, they’re dealing with the neighbors, they’re dealing with everybody inside and outside the building. A boiler explosion will take up a whole city block. We have two boilers,” she added.

Furey thinks the district is pushing it with these new changes, “Not having someone going down there on a regular basis and checking things out and stuff like that is not okay,” she said. Furey noted that there have been 4-6 near misses with boiler issues across the district in the last 10-15 years. Another important aspect to note is that according to OSHA (Occupational Safety And Health Administration) regulations, 777, National Board no. 5913, a licensed boiler operator must remain on site when a boiler is in operation. A representative from the district was asked for an interview on this topic but has not replied at this time.

Reynolds spoke of why these cuts will occur, “[The superintendent] is really focused on balancing the budget… he is trying his best he can to keep cuts away from the classroom so that is why a lot of he cuts you are seeing are to things like engineer sand support staff,” she said. “All of those things go together to make the classroom work, there is really no way to keep cuts away from the classroom,” Reynolds added. Furey echoed this, “My job as head engineer is to make sure that there is a building.”

The coming changes to head engineers aren’t the only problem occurring within the engineering program though. Reynolds addressed another struggle, “The other issue we are having… is more than just budget cuts, it’s about the wage they are paid in the district because other districts and hospitals and other places that hire engineers, [they] are offering a much more market-friendly wage. So there really isn’t a lot to make Minneapolis Public Schools attractive to even hire more engineers,” she said. This has already led to a shortage of engineers not solely within South but as well as the rest of the district, “We can’t hire enough people to fill the positions that we have and now we are taking positions away that were filled by our most qualified people with the highest level of licensure.”

Former South engineer Dan Althoff spoke of his reasons for leaving the Minneapolis district to work at Edina, “[In Minneapolis] they are really not giving new people the [pay] incentive to stay for the amount of work that needs to be done,” he said. Althoff commented on how the shortage of engineers affects the district, “There is just a lot of things that don’t get done because of people having to do the extra work… it incurs overtime which costs more money… until [the district] fills the positions it’s going to cost the district more money.”

The shortage of engineers in South has also led to issues of uncleanliness throughout the building due to there not being enough engineers for the size of the building. This shortage may lead to even more changes in South according to Reynolds, “I have heard rumors around [The district] hiring a cleaning company or contracting those services so that our engineers do more working on projects in the building versus the cleaning and upkeep that they have to do.”  

Although this may sound like a perfect solution, should this happen it could raise even more concerns, Reynolds spoke of one such possibility, “To me there is a concern, our engineers are a part of our community… we trust them wholeheartedly… If we hire people to come into the building to do cleaning, my worry would be are they vetted for a background process, how do we know who’s here, it could essentially become a security issue if we’ve got people who are not fully vested in South High School… We want people who are dedicated to what we do and take pride in ‘I do what I do for the students of South High School,’” Reynolds added.

Some teachers have advocated to the district on the behalf of the engineers says social studies teacher and Teacher’s Union Steward Robert Panning-Miller, “There’s been a lot of effort among teachers… To support the engineers and custodians and trying to fight against the changes that are seen as both weakening their positions individually as well as… what’s happening right now is going to have a negative effect for students as far as the care of the buildings,” he said. Panning-Miller said this of his experience with how classroom environment affects learning, “In an environment that if your are walking through dirty hallways and classrooms it is not really conducive to learning,” he said. “The physical environment is important in terms of how students are able to function, how teachers are able to function,” he concluded.

The effects of the coming budget changes and district’s treatment of engineers will affect the whole South community. These changes of low wages and understaffing don’t only make the engineer’s job significantly more difficult, but the safety risks that will come with the new occupational changes and the inability to keep the school’s past level of cleanliness will affect everyone in South.