Schools' roofers are back on top Team remains bitter over idle period during reorganization

July 09, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

For years, Ken, Larry and Joe were part of what they called "the roof team," which came to be known across Maryland and beyond for successful design, specifications and inspections of school roofs in Baltimore County.

But over the past six months, the roof guys have mostly sat around an office in Pulaski Business Park with nothing to do -- while the school system paid them $126,000 in salaries.

That is not because no roofing projects were under way -- there have been 13 since fall. Since September, however, the school system has paid or promised consultants $547,000 to do work employees used to do.

"My job was to sit there," roofing inspector Ken Hamer said, recalling a departmental restructuring that threatened him with a layoff. "I was spending your tax money sitting on my duff."

The experience of Hamer and some co-workers illustrates the dysfunction in the school facilities department and the personal fallout from a decision by former facilities director Faith Hermann and her managers to reorganize roofing repairs.

Even though Hamer, Larry Minton and eight other employees -- including two others from the roof team -- recently were offered their jobs back, they still bear the scars of the ill-fated reorganization.

Last week, Hamer, who earns $38,000 annually, was back in the sunlight -- up on a roof, where he says he belongs.

On Winfield Elementary's heat-baked black asphalt, a gray bandanna and sunglasses protected his head, and his khaki pants and white polo shirt were splattered black. It felt great, he said, pushing his sneaker into a blister on the roof and noting a water pocket.

"I'm happy to be back doing what I know."

The layoffs -- which had been scheduled to take effect July 1 -- have been a matter of controversy for months. The discord escalated this spring after the release of internal audits describing mismanagement and procurement violations in the department.

Hermann, who was transferred to the curriculum department in April, hasn't commented publicly. But other former facilities officials say the scheduled layoffs were triggered by the county school superintendent's order to cut jobs; the targeted positions were the most expendable.

For roofing, some former and current managers say, the department switched to consultants to take advantage of industry expertise and avoid paying salaries and benefits to narrowly trained specialists in slow months or in years when roof projects are few.

'Holistic approach'

Dennis Beran, the former maintenance manager who quit last month to move to Florida, said Hermann's team wanted project managers with diverse skills who could oversee a variety of projects -- including asbestos abatement, new ceilings, lights and roofs -- instead of roofing specialists.

"We were trying to take a more holistic approach," he said.

But some in the roofing world defend the county employees.

"The program was second to none," said Clarence I. Wolf, owner of Korb Roofers, who has been doing work for the school system for 20 years. "Of all the school systems I've worked for, and I've worked for a lot, they certainly had a fine system."

And the employees, looking back, paint a picture of a department that once held together like family -- with picnics, basketball games and a volleyball tournament complete with cheerleaders -- spiraling downward as new managers decreed changes.

It was not the way Joe Martin expected to leave the school system to which he had devoted 26 years, 25 as head of roofing, during which his team developed a system of design and inspections that drew inquiries from school systems across the nation. He retired in March, at 64, four months before his job disappeared.

Martin said his team was among the school system pioneers in the use of tapered insulation and extra drains to remove water from flat roofs, and a system on the roof's perimeter to prevent cracking.

But roof team members -- there were six at one time -- said conflicts arose with Hermann, a former English teacher and principal who became facilities director in July 1993, and her managers.

They cite, for one, the skylight dispute: The team had decided long ago to remove skylights with each reroofing project, after children playing on roofs fell through, and after dealing with leaks. Hermann wanted them back.

The two camps also sparred over insulation; Hermann's managers wanted a less expensive sort than the schools had been using for years. And the managers didn't like the system designed to prevent cracking, Martin said.

One Monday, the roof team showed up for work and found that all of their belongings had been moved to the office warehouse. Eventually, they said, they landed in a windowless former storage room.

In September 1995, Martin said, the car he had been given with his job in 1969 was taken away. Hamer and Minton also lost their cars, which were assigned to them because they were on call around the clock.

Slow days

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