Salt Lake City School District on Creating a Comprehensive Green Cleaning Program

Ricky Martinez
Assistant Director of Facility Services
Salt Lake City School District
440 East 100 South Salt Lake City, Utah

Tell us about your school district.

Salt Lake City School District is a K-12 institution with 24,029 students and 40 facilities, spanning 4,600,000 square feet.

What was your path to a career in school facilities management? 

I started my journey in 1989, fresh out of high school. I got a seasonal job with the grounds department cutting lawns in the summer with the goal of getting a full-time position, but nothing was available. My grounds supervisor approached me and said that they would not have any full-time positions open for a long time and asked if I would be interested in working for the custodial department because they had more full- time positions. I transferred over to custodial and fell in love with the job; it was gratifying to walk into a big mess and have it all clean and shiny by the end of the shift, and know that I’d accomplished that.

As I moved up and got more involved in management instead of cleaning, I loved the fact that I was helping teachers, students, and the community on another level. I worked my way up from a sweeper to the custodial supervisor for the whole department. Then, during the pandemic, the assistant director for facilities retired so I applied and interviewed for the position and got it. That is where I am currently. I literally started from the ground up.

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

I enjoy solving problems and helping other departments, administrators, students, and employees while working with a diverse workforce. I enjoy when our department saves the day — whether it be fixing playground equipment so it’s safe for students, making sure our HVAC systems are functioning so that the teachers and student can learn in a comfortable, safe environment, or ensuring the custodial staff are cleaning and disinfecting the schools for all patrons. 

What do you find most challenging? 

I would have to say that changing a culture is the most challenging thing. We make dramatic changes all the time. For example, when we started our integrated pest management program, we changed from using pesticides as our first line of defense to education, housekeeping, and exclusion methods and began cleaning and disinfecting with a less toxic, safer chemical instead of using bleach and quaternary disinfectants. We also improved our security procedures by removing door stops and having teachers and staff lock the doors at all times rather than leaving the doors unlocked or propped open.

These challenges are not limited to just teachers, administrators, and school staff — they are also challenging to our department. Changing the culture is an ongoing challenge, so we must stay consistent and know we are doing the right things for the safety and security in our schools. 

Why is improving sustainability and air quality in Salt Lake City School District facilities important to you? 

Improving sustainability and air quality are important because they’re the right things to do, but it’s also personal. I have several nieces and nephews that go to school and I want them to go to a school that has a facilities department that is not only looking out for the health and safety of our student and staff, but is proactively learning and researching how to improve sustainability and indoor air quality — especially when we know that a lot of students and staff have asthma and allergies. We don’t want to introduce practices or procedures that trigger asthma or allergies; we want to find ways to reduce these triggers. We want to be confident and proud to let staff and community members know that our program is making them safer and is looking out for the health of our students and staff, and have the documentation, tests, case studies, certifications, and more to prove it.

What motivated you to join the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program? 

I have been networking and partnering with Healthy Green Schools & Colleges for over seven years and have received a lot of great information and education on IAQ and green cleaning. We credit HGSC for helping us get our green cleaning program started, and I think it is one of the best pathways to either start or enhance your green cleaning or IAQ program.

When HGSC approached me about becoming an early adopter in a program they developed with Green Seal, I said, “yes, we will definitely do it.” The biggest motivator for me to join this program was the self-assessment, which shows you where your facility program is at with IAQ, sustainability, and green cleaning. Not only is that motivation to start a program, but it also shows you areas of improvement. The accountability and certification further encouraged us to join.

Were you surprised by your score on the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges self-assessment?

The score did not surprise me as much as seeing where we needed improvement or realizing that we needed a more comprehensive program in some areas we didn’t expect. It was a good eye opener, and I am excited to get better with the help and support of the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program. 

How are you and your team using Healthy Green Schools & Colleges to identify or address areas of opportunity in your facilities? 

To start off, I am going to get ahold of other school districts and colleges that have great preventative maintenance programs and monitoring system for IAQ to learn from them because that is an area where we need to improve. 

Are colleagues or administrators outside of your department aware of or interested in your school’s participation in the program? 

Yes, we have an association called USCMA (Utah Schools Custodial Management Association) that is made up of 12 different K-12 school districts throughout the Wasatch front. Canyons and Jordan School Districts are aware of this program and are actively participating and we are going to meet with the other districts in the association to discuss and educate them on this program.

What accomplishment are you most proud of from a health or sustainability standpoint? 

I’m most proud of our infection control and integrated pest management (IPM) programs because we lead the state in both categories. We were the first school district in our state to implement a comprehensive IPM program and we reduced the use of pesticides in our schools by over 90% by using a proactive, common-sense approach to control pests through education, housekeeping, and exclusion methods.

We were ahead of the curve in infection control during the pandemic because we a had a system in place that used less toxic cleaners and disinfectants that were not only safer for the staff and users, but also met the EPA N-List requirements for use against all infectious germs and diseases, including COVID. What motivated us was the health of not only our students and school staff, but our employees too. We always want to make sure that we are not putting harmful chemicals in our schools that can be harmful for a child’s physical or mental development, or trigger asthma or allergies.

We achieve these goals by educating ourselves through partnerships with Utah State University’s Entomology Department, which helped us write our IPM School Plan, and with USCMA, Healthy Schools Campaign, and ISSA to help us improve our infection control and green cleaning program. It was a big cultural change, but we found success by including our employees in drastic changes, meeting with employees, getting their input, and piloting new equipment, processes, and chemicals. Not only does including your employees show that you value their input, but they also become part of the necessary culture shift. 

What’s next for the Salt Lake City School District? 

Upgrading our HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems to more energy efficient systems is the next step. We are also going to enhance our IAQ monitoring program by buying more IAQ monitors so we know that what we are doing — as far as cleaning, ventilation, temperature, humidity, and CO2 — is working properly.

Water conservation is another big goal we are taking on. This includes zeroscaping grounds where we need to, avoiding overwatering areas by using a weather tracking system, going to no-wax floors so we don’t have to strip wax off floors which takes a lot of water, and upgrading our cleaning equipment and chemicals.

We are also improving our recycling program with the help of our high schools’ environmental clubs and working toward more sustainability certifications.