The Minneapolis Public Schools' plan to drastically reduce the number of engineers fully licensed to fix problems in its buildings has sparked safety concerns among teachers and others.

The cutback from about 100 engineers-in-charge and assistant engineers to just 15 "physical plant operators" — announced to the engineers last week — is designed to help the district cut costs as it faces a $28 million budget gap. But the plan has sparked concern from the engineers facing demotion and teachers concerned that it may increase safety risks in school buildings.

The restructuring plan isn't a round of layoffs. The engineers have been told that their positions are being eliminated and they are being demoted, said Ernie Gonzales, an engineer-in-charge at Roosevelt High School.

"That is unsafe for the population of the building — kids and staff and administration," he said.

But Karen DeVet, the district's chief operations officer, said in an e-mail that schools will remain safe. The district is restructuring plant operations for "more effective maintenance and cleaning of our schools," she said.

"The changes we've identified are truly rooted in a desire to do the very best we can for children in Minneapolis, and providing safe and clean schools is a cornerstone of our work," she wrote in the e-mail.

She said that the work engineers typically perform, like boiler checks and maintenance, now will be the responsibility of physical plant operators.

Staffers who remain at school sites can then concentrate on keeping buildings clean, she said.

Many people now in engineer positions haven't received licensing and are in roles temporarily, DeVet added, and the restructuring means that those overseeing boiler operations will have "the appropriate state licensing."

Building and boiler coverage will remain in compliance with all legal requirements, the district said.

The district asked building engineers to fill out severance papers Friday, according to a release from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. The union wants school board members to "intervene and preserve the positions, at least until the proposed cuts are publicly debated."

Schools across the district have head engineers, called engineers-in-charge, as well as assistant engineers. People in those two jobs are responsible for manning boilers, including managing temperature and water issues in school buildings.

The district's restructuring removed two engineering roles, added senior custodian roles and increased the number of custodian positions, maintaining roughly the same amount of total employees.

A question of time?

Teachers and other concerned staffers say they're not convinced that safety won't be put at risk.

"Buildings as old as ours need constant attention from trained professionals to prevent problems that could affect student learning or safety," said Roosevelt High School teacher Jill Jacobson in a statement released by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

"And when something goes wrong with a commercial boiler, like a water leak or worse, we can't wait for the district office to find someone to come over and fix it."

Recently, gallons of water flooded into the band room at Roosevelt, Gonzales said.

"If I had to wait for some building operator to come over, this could have been a big catastrophe, and you would have had water damage everywhere," he said.

The engineers' role is more than just making sure the building is running smoothly, said Paul Stresnak, an assistant engineer at Bryn Mawr Elementary who's there on a temporary term. They are there for students — to "mentor them, talk with them, hug them — whatever they need," he said.

The district is facing pushback for a number of planned staffing cuts. In a chaotic Minneapolis school board meeting Tuesday night, protesters claimed that educators, especially minority ones, have been pushed out for advocating for students in a time of harsh budget cuts.

The district responded that its disciplinary decisions "are made based on facts and with due process."

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569