On the evening of March 21, Christiana Elementary School principal Julie Benson and her faculty members were busy holding parent-teacher conferences, an art showcase and a book fair when the unexpected occurred.
A severe thunderstorm moving through the area struck the school with extreme intensity, and as a precaution, Benson had everyone go into a safety drill and hunker down in the hallways.
Her actions proved to be both fortunate and wise. Within minutes, part of the school’s roof was peeled away and rain water began gushing into classrooms that had previously been occupied.
Miraculously, not a single person was injured, despite the school having a “full house.”
“In this situation, the first call I made was to get everyone into a safe location and the second thing I did was to call the emergency number for the maintenance department to make sure they could get here. Within minutes, they were here to help,” Benson said.
It was going to be a long night for the Rutherford County Schools’ maintenance department.
Maintenance director Kenneth Curlee says his philosophy for the department is to ensure they do all they can to keep schools open so students have an opportunity to learn.
“My challenge is, we’ve got to have school the next day,” Curlee said.
The maintenance department operates as part of the Rutherford County Schools’ Engineering and Construction office. The department is made up of approximately 60 personnel who are divided among five specialty teams: construction, warehouse, electrical, plumbing and HVAC.
They do all types of jobs, ranging from building new walls in schools to create new learning spaces, to building ramps on portable classrooms, to repairing lights and gas leaks.
In fact, the maintenance staff completes 1,200 work orders per month on average.
“You’re only as good as the people under you and we’ve got to hire good people,” Curlee said about the quality of the maintenance staff.
Having an in-house maintenance department benefits the Rutherford County school district and its stakeholders by saving money and improving response time when there are issues, said Gary Clardy, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Engineering and Construction.
“They can be there in minutes,” Clardy explained. “If you had to wait on a sub contractor, many of them have a 24-hour response time. So you’re just stuck there waiting. We don’t have to wait. We can respond and then move on to something else that’s pressing.”
Curlee — nearly always wearing his signature ball cap — has been the director of the maintenance department since 2004. He’s been with the department for 38 years, after first starting out as a helper as a young man in his 20s.
His experience with the department has made him invaluable as a leader, Clardy said.
“Kenneth is seasoned and knowledgeable in many areas when it comes to facilities,” Clardy said. “He is very smart. His no-nonsense leadership skills promotes excellence. All of his men respect him because of his knowledge and leadership style.”
As a lifelong Rutherford County resident, Curlee’s ties to the community run deep.
He went to grade school at McFadden before attending Central High School. In fact, two of his granddaughters later attended McFadden and used the same classroom he had for first grade.
He keeps photos in his office of the girls in those classrooms.
The role of the maintenance department, he says, is to keep schools open and safe so students can learn. He can name countless times when his staff responded after hours or on weekends to ensure classes could continue the next day.
“Right now, I have to brag, we have the best crew I’ve ever seen,” Curlee said.
On the night of the storm, many maintenance personnel worked throughout the night clearing debris from the damaged roof and classrooms, removing water using mops and dehumidifiers, rescuing computers and materials, and prepping the classrooms for students to return.
A temporary roof was in place in less the 24 hours and the school only had to close for two days, despite the extensive damage caused by the storm.
As the principal at Christiana, Benson — who for many years has hosted an appreciation breakfast for the maintenance staff and others each December — has long known how reliable and valuable the maintenance staff is to the operation of the schools.
“It’s like I told the insurance adjuster,” Benson said. “When I call and need help, they come no matter what it is.”