Article as featured in Blueprint Magazine
- Written by: David Harry
- Produced by: Liz Fallon & Bill Parkison
Things get congested and complicated when school days begin and end at Unionville High School and Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Cars and school buses get backed up in the parking areas at the adjacent campuses as about 2,500 students and 350 staff members come and go, and congestion is exacerbated because the pedestrian, traffic and parking flows aren’t well separated.
The parking areas have inadequate sidewalks, so students may also impede traffic and cause safety concerns as they walk through the lots. The congestion also slows traffic on Unionville Road, the two-lane road passing in front of the campuses.
Such are the issues that James Whitesel is facing and addressing as director of facilities for the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.
“It’s kind of organized chaos to get everyone in and out,” he says. “We’re looking to completely change that with better access points to get cars and buses in and out more efficiently.”
While he and his team are preparing the plan to improve traffic and parking in a summer 2024 project, they’re also overseeing maintenance for UCFSD’s six schools and working to make them operate more sustainably.
“There’s a lot that people don’t understand behind the walls, like boiler rooms with pumps and controllers to heat, chill and circulate water,” Whitesel says. “When my phone rings, it’s not someone calling just to say hello.”
A team effort
Located southwest of Philadelphia, UCFSD is celebrating the centennial of its oldest school, Unionville Elementary, this year. The school district encompasses seven townships and has a total enrollment of more than 4,000 students. Along with four elementary schools, a middle school and high school, the district also operates a bus depot and a maintenance building.
Whitesel oversees a team of more than 50 full-time employees that include head custodians for each school building, a central maintenance staff that’s led by James Acker, who’s responsible for building maintenance, and Grounds Supervisor Erik Nurenberg. Capital Projects Coordinator Joshua Fazio oversees renovation and construction projects.
The facilities management team maintains wastewater treatment plants at three schools and a well system for fresh water at one school. Whitesel also oversees the district’s transportation operations, where Supervisor Marco Sordi oversees the depot, repair facility and drivers for more than 70 vehicles.
Whitesel says he and his team have about 20 projects of any given size going on at any given time. As he chatted with Blueprint in July, he was preparing to present parking and traffic plans for the middle and high school campuses to the East Marlborough Township Board of Supervisors. The plans have already been approved by the UCFSD School Board as part of the district’s 10-year capital plan.
Whitesel says the central road through the campuses will be improved and school buses will be diverted from the general traffic. About 80 new parking spaces will be added, too, as the tennis courts will be relocated from between the schools.
Whitesel says once the supervisors approve the plans, he can prepare bids for the project that he estimates will cost $2.5 million. The school board will have to approve the winning bid, as well.
A sustainable future
Whitesel and his team emphasize preventative maintenance at the schools—spending as much as $4.5 million annually on projects such as the ongoing roof renovations and replacements. The roofs are more than 30 years old, and once they’re repaired or replaced, he says it’s possible solar panels will be installed, too.
That’s also part of a bigger envisioned effort to generate electricity with solar power that could entail UCFSD entering into a power purchase agreement, or PPA. Such an agreement, which is in the planning stage, would allow a company to build a solar farm on district land. Between rooftop panels and a solar farm, a 4.5-gigawatt system could be installed and supply 85 percent of the electricity the district needs during the school year and add power to the local grid during summer months.
PPAs are common approaches for municipalities and other public institutions to add renewable energy sources because the agreements require the entity building the infrastructure to pay for the system. In this case, UFCSD would buy power generated at a reduced rate from the entity without incurring the installation or maintenance costs, Whitesel says. At the end of the contract, the system would be turned over to the school district.
Whitesel is working on a request for proposals to solicit pricing and options for adding solar power while also making sustainability a priority in other projects by replacing school and exterior parking lot lights with LED fixtures. He’s looking to replace oil-burning boilers at one school as part of HVAC improvements and says he’ll be looking at using heat pumps or geothermal sources.
HVAC projects have made schools safer, too. In 2020, high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters were installed to protect against airborne contaminants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The filters also preserved air quality when smoke from Canadian wildfires permeated the outdoor air this spring.
UCFSD is also adding two electric buses to its fleet in September in a pilot program with Highland Electric Fleets. Highland will provide the buses, maintenance and pay for the electricity as the district provides the drivers, Whitesel says.
“This gives us the opportunity to test electric buses on our routes and under different conditions without the upfront expense of purchasing them,” he adds.
Helping students excel
Born and raised in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Whitesel has always worked close to home.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and construction management from Temple University in 1992, Whitesel joined the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, as a project engineer. He managed design and construction phases for renovation and construction projects from $1 million to $40 million, including the $30 million renovation of the Suburban Station for commuter rail.
“I went from building the spaces to managing the spaces,” Whitesel says of his 2002 move to become capital projects supervisor for the West Chester Area School District, which is adjacent to UCFSD.
He joined the district as it was beginning to renovate two high schools and build a new one. He was named facilities supervisor in March 2011 and was assistant director of facilities and operations when he joined UCFSD in June 2018. While his career has been spent working in the public sector, he says he’s enjoyed working for school districts because of the long-term opportunities to manage facilities.
“We want to provide well maintained, clean and healthy facilities to allow our students to excel,” Whitesel says. “The quality of facilities affects quality of education, so we make sure that everything is safe, comfortable and welcoming.”