veritas exquirere

Talon

veritas exquirere

Talon

veritas exquirere

Talon

The struggle towards a cleaner future

How OPUSD maintenance is handling budget cuts, community involvement and sustainability
The+struggle+towards+a+cleaner+future

Of all the chaos that exists in my high school experience, there have been two consistent sights: the groundskeeper who blows leaves off the sidewalk as I drag myself to zero period and the night crew who comes in to pick up the trash as I tinker in Mr. Prescott’s shop after school. From 7AM to 10PM, OPUSD’s maintenance crew works to ensure that a clean campus is not a concern for students or teachers.

“We view ourselves as part of the bigger circle. Our job is to keep the campus as nice as possible so that teachers can concentrate on student health, safety and learning,” OPHS Head Custodian Richard Ortega said.

Over the past few years, especially with the coming and going of a global pandemic, the district has faced a lot of change. From new administration to updated rules on safety and procedure, returning to campus had its fair share of adjustments.  

The maintenance department has been no exception, tackling new and returning challenges as they seek to maintain and improve school grounds. One struggle in particular has been an increased intermixing of trash and recycling.

“I’ve noticed over the years and especially after COVID, it really has gotten into a mixed situation with the trash cans and recycling,” Ortega said. “We try to pull out as much cardboard and plastic as we are getting the trash bags but it’s not easy.”

When there is intermixing or contamination, Waste Management fines the district; this usually occurs a few times a year.

“We get fined if things aren’t where they are supposed to be,” District Wide Head Custodian Jim Craft said. “Most recently we got fined for overage, which is putting too much trash in the bins. The local community also has access to putting waste in these bins. My guys try to stay on top of it but it’s definitely challenging.”

Kristine Costa, Senior Account Manager for WM, agreed that contamination in recycling and compost bins has been an issue. To curb intermixing, WM uses smart truck technology to identify contamination, alert customers and then educate them on what can or can not be recycled or composted.

Many of the maintenance department’s challenges stem from the same thing: a lack of education. Trash cans and recycling are placed next to each other so students can easily choose, but sometimes it’s difficult to know what goes where.

“We want kids to utilize the system but it is not always clear what is recyclable,” Ortega said. “Not even to adults sometimes. Educating students is crucial when it comes to solving this.” 

Another place where education seems to be the root of the problem is the composting initiative. While each of the six sites has a green waste bin, and cafeterias compost food waste, getting students involved has proved difficult.

“It [green waste program] is just really hard to do,” Craft said. “It requires a lot of supervision so it’s just tough to get it working. I see a lot of obstacles, education being the main one.”

Ortega noted that this struggle with composting might be statewide.

“I think it is a California problem because I don’t see this initiative being rolled out with education,” Ortega said. “And I don’t see a lot of people even in communities really participating in composting.”

However, other district-wide green initiatives have had more success. OPUSD has made it a goal to transition from non eco-friendly products to EcoLogo certified cleaning products.

“That type of chemical exposure can be dangerous health wise so it is good that we are using EcoLogo stuff because not only is it good for the environment but it’s good for the safety of workers,” Craft said. “One of my former custodians had been working for 20 years and she developed lung issues. You’ve got to wonder whether all the chemicals had an effect.”

Beyond initiatives designed to be implemented by the staff, community involvement also played a significant role in upkeep, which had faded post-pandemic.

“There used to be more community events during the weekends like the coastal cleanup and a whole sustainability event on Saturdays,” Ortega said. “Some of these things seem to have gone away with Dr. Knight’s departure. It may be the budget cuts or just changing priorities.”

The 1.7 million dollar budget cuts that OPUSD will experience in the upcoming year, combined with recent years’ inflation, have been a concern for the department. 

“I don’t know if they are going to cut my spending budget, you know, we need what we need,” Craft said. “It is something that has definitely been on the back of my mind.” 

Budget cuts might also affect the district’s ability to bring back programs that previously helped keep the community clean.

“It’s just important to support the community and their efforts to keep Oak Park a nice place,” Ortega said. “I just hope that those things are not forgotten when it comes budget time.”

Educating students and helping them get involved is crucial to improving wastefulness. While OPUSD is already on a good track there is always room to improve.

“We can’t just take advantage of what is given to us here and think it is going to be sustainable forever,” Ortega said. “We have very much become a society of waste and in general people choose convenience without thinking of future consequences. But that doesn’t mean things can’t improve. We live in a community where luckily a lot of people seem to care, we need to push for that.”

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Penelope Kladopoulos
Penelope Kladopoulos, Opinion Editor
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