It's Ray Jackson's busy season.

Days before 130,000 children are scheduled to return to Philadelphia public schools Tuesday, Jackson and other building engineers across the city are finishing plaster repair jobs, switching out lights, scrubbing and shining floors.

The massive job of keeping the School District's stock of 300 aging buildings up and running falls largely to Jackson and his colleagues, who have spent all summer getting things in order for the first day of school.

"Without him," Blankenburg Elementary teacher Kimberly Ardley said, "this building does not work."

Jackson, a 20-year veteran engineer, keeps Blankenburg humming. Blankenburg is like many school buildings in the city: massive (64,000 square feet) and old (built in 1923, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places). The school, which takes up an entire city block at 46th Street and Girard Avenue, has good bones, with a caveat.

Building engineer Ray Jackson maintains Blankenburg Elementary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Building engineer Ray Jackson maintains Blankenburg Elementary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's functional, but it needs updating," said Jackson, who began his career as a cleaner in the school system.

A comprehensive school facilities audit completed earlier this year showed that the district has nearly $5 billion in unmet capital needs. At Blankenburg, some things are in decent shape — the roof, for instance — but others need work, according to district records: The exterior windows have outlived their usefulness, the air handler that helps circulate heat is a problem, and the current clock system is so old it's difficult to find parts to repair when something fails.

The district report said it would take $9 million to fix every deficiency at Blankenburg, a K-8 school with 450 students. In the meantime, Jackson and his staff make do.

On a recent day, Jackson was in constant motion, hauling tables, fixing doorknobs, and troubleshooting issues for teachers, who were back in the building readying their classrooms for kids.

His main focus was the small outbuilding that houses Blankenburg's cafeteria. Jackson and his crew, a custodian's assistant and three cleaners, were painting, cleaning and waxing floors, hauling tables, and moving around kitchen equipment in a warm space with fans blowing, both for temperature control and to mitigate the smells of wax and cleaner. Later, he would replace or repair some electrical ballasts near the gym.

A few old, out-of-tune pianos sat in hallways; Jackson would have to make sure they were removed, too. And he couldn't forget about the hundreds of chairs and reams of papers that lined hallways; they'd have to be moved into the right spots.

Michael Roepel (left) and building engineer Ray Jackson prepare for the first day of school at Blankenburg Elementary.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Michael Roepel (left) and building engineer Ray Jackson prepare for the first day of school at Blankenburg Elementary.

There are routines in Jackson's job, but he never knows exactly what his workload might look like.

He might be on the roof maintaining exhaust fans, or, when the weather is bad, he might be removing snow from the vast schoolyard. He might be checking playground equipment to make sure it is safe. Often, he is bleeding radiators or blowing down the school's old boiler — forcing water out with steam pressure to make sure no sludge or sediment collects.

"Every day, things change here," he said.

Jackson, who is organized and methodical, worked quickly Wednesday but still figured he'd have to come in on the weekend to get everything done before the Labor Day holiday. His shift begins before sunrise and though he's supposed to leave at 2:30, he rarely leaves on time, especially these days.

"There's so much to get done — we're all over the place," said Jackson, 40, who is a city resident and graduate of the now-closed University City High School. "I'm not worried about it, though — we always finish the job."

Jackson's back-to-school efforts began the day the last student left Blankenburg on June 20, and continued through the heat, in a four-story building that is not air-conditioned and has no elevator. And since Blankenburg is a district turnaround school, it got a new principal, a host of new teachers and staff, and other improvements — lighting, furniture, 1,000 boxes' worth of supplies, which Jackson kept track of, lining each up neatly in the library.

Blankenburg housed a summer camp this year, meaning some of the repair and cleaning jobs that might have gotten done earlier had to be pushed off until children left the building.

Nothing seems to faze Jackson — not the fact that schools used to have more staff to maintain buildings, or the time the bat showed up at Blankenburg (he trapped it in a room, called district pest control, and kept kids away) or the time the water supply tank failed, flooding the whole boiler room and briefly shutting down the heating system.

Principal LeAndrea Hagan is new to Blankenburg, but she learned something about the school pretty quickly.

"He's terrific," she said, pointing to Jackson, who allowed himself a small smile before moving on to the next task.