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District Maintenance Heroes Readying for Students’ Return to School

San Jose Unified School District sign on front of District building

District Maintenance Heroes Readying for Students’ Return to School

When San José Unified students return to school this week, they’ll come back to clean classrooms, finely manicured lawns and sparkling arts and athletic facilities.

That handiwork might not get noticed immediately, but it’s the product of months of effort from the District’s unsung heroes on the Maintenance, Operations, and Grounds teams. While teachers and students were enjoying some much-deserved time off this summer, maintenance employees were redoubling their efforts to make sure that San José Unified properties received all their necessary care and attention.

The scope of their work is vast—across the sprawling District properties, the Maintenance, Operations, and Grounds teams, which is composed of 233 individuals, are responsible for overseeing about 3.5 million square feet of interior building space and roughly 500 acres of outdoor areas.

“There is no summer break for us,” said Lilia Valenzuela, who is the District’s Operations Field Coordinator in charge of managing all 140 of SJUSD’s custodial workers. “We are busier than ever at this time of year.” Her counterparts oversee Warehouse & Safety, and Central Station operations.

While classrooms are empty, the custodial staff is engaged in deep cleaning work—removing graffiti, shampooing carpets, waxing floors, and embarking on other projects that can’t be done when school is in session. The work can be particularly meticulous—it even includes removing wayward staples in desks.

For Valenzuela, who has been with San José Unified for 37 years as an employee after graduating from Abraham Lincoln High as a student, that kind of attention to detail reflects the passionate work carried out every day by her colleagues in the custodial team.

“They take a great deal of pride in their work,” said Valenzuela. “People might not know this, but we are always rushing and sweating and making sure that the behind-the-scenes work gets done.”

Sammy Coppola, a plumber who has been with the District for almost three years, shares that same kind of commitment to his duties. As one of two primary plumbers for San José Unified, Coppola and his colleague Fikret Krajnic split the work orders across all 56 work locations.

Coppola’s responsibilities vary on a daily basis, with the work ranging from small undertakings like fixing a faucet to major capital overhauls, such as replacing a water heater or boiler. He also coordinates work with the Grounds crew to oversee irrigation efforts, among other duties.

When accidents arise—and they arise frequently—Coppola is immediately dispatched to the scene, helping to fix broken water pipes or diagnose and address backups and stoppages on sewer lines.

As a plumber, Coppola works frequently with the other maintenance employees, who represent a number of different skilled disciplines and crafts. While he’s been a plumber for more than 25 years, he said he’s never witnessed the kind of camaraderie between the employees he’s seen at San José Unified.

“There are about 30 of us in the maintenance yard with different areas of expertise and everybody’s willing to pitch in and help each other out if we need it,” said Coppola. “This is a really close knit group of people.”

That closeness extends to the Grounds crew, which manages San José Unified’s expansive collection of lawns, athletic sites, wooded areas and other open spaces—an area that’s the rough equivalent of 380 football fields.

Tracy Decaires is one of about a half-dozen Grounds equipment operators. During these sweltering summer months, Decaires and his colleagues have been focusing on tree trimming and removal at District properties, helping to ensure that the surroundings are safe and secure for students and employees. The Grounds crew begin their days at 6:30 a.m., but the early starts help bring the team closer, said Decaires.

“We work together, so the days go by quickly,” said Decaires. “It’s a pleasure working with these guys.”

While their work might seem to go unnoticed at times, the community has a deep appreciation for all the efforts of its Maintenance, Grounds, and Operations employees. They are part of an innovative, ever-adapting workforce that makes the San José Unified unique and special. For individuals like Coppola, the gratitude and support shown by San José Unified is valued.

“Coming to the District was the best decision I could make,” said Coppola. “When you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like a job. That’s a great feeling to have.”