Engineers' union sues DPS over boiler regulations

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Detroit Public Schools is in hot water with one of its unions over what engineers say are unsafe changes to boiler regulations.

Michigan Operating Engineers Local 324 has filed a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court to appeal a decision that would exempt the district from an ordinance that requires an on-site engineer to monitor school boilers. Instead, engineers will be assigned to service five schools.

If the decision isn't overturned, "people's lives will be in danger," said Jim Arini, treasurer and business representative for the union.

The school district is in the process of installing technology known as advanced boiler monitor systems, or ABMS, to replace designated engineers. If the system detects a problem, an alarm will go off.

Jennifer Mrozowski, communications director for DPS, said the new technology will make students safer and will save approximately $3 million annually that will be directed back into the classroom.

The new plan would leave 15 engineers to oversee 75 schools in the district.

"Boilers operating today have at least nine safety features in place, and we are installing new monitoring that will give us instantaneous updates, including to the mobile devices of operations staff," Mrozowski said.

Arini, a licensed boiler engineer for the city of Detroit for more than 30 years, said the problem is that the technology can't react to an emergency. If controls are not working, the system is unable to detect a problem, he said.

"At Marcus Garvey Academy, two boilers were installed, but one had controls that didn't work," he said. "The system kept running and if I wasn't there to check, it would have been a boiler fire."

Last September, DPS asked a board of the city of Detroit's Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department to cut the number of engineers. Arini said school officials were told that it wouldn't be a good idea.

In January, DPS appealed the decision to the city and was denied again. But a city of Detroit building official later determined the decision was based on an outdated ordinance and allowed DPS to proceed with its plan, Arini said.

Boilers in DPS are used for heating and hot water for bathrooms and kitchens. Due to the declining conditions of most of the school buildings, some teachers are concerned about the safety of children as well as their own, union officials said.

"Each building needs to be manned," said Ivy Bailey, Detroit Federation of Teachers executive vice president. "I couldn't imagine a school having a major issue with heating or controls and trying to get immediate assistance from an engineer coming from another school."

Arini said the concern is not about engineers losing jobs.

"This is about the safety of the children," Arini said. "If one kid gets hurt ... is it worth the cost of the money saved?"