Lonnie Pilgrim – Fort McMurray Public Schools
There’s never a good time for a building to flood.
The beginning of a global health pandemic is especially bad, though. In April 2020, this is the situation Lonnie Pilgrim faced when Fort McMurray Composite High School flooded with eight inches of water from a nearby river.
As the school division’s director of buildings and maintenance, he oversaw contractors and sourced supplies to replace the damaged floors, walls and furniture. His goal was to have the building ready for students by the start of the next school year.
“The district’s slogan is ‘doing what’s best for the kids,’ and that resonates with me,” Pilgrim says. “It’s rewarding to know I’m having a positive impact on the kids even though I’m not directly educating them.”
In the deep end
Fort McMurray Public Schools, located in Alberta, Canada, consists of 16 schools serving over 6,000 students. Some of the schools are located near rivers that freeze every winter and can flood in the spring. According to Pilgrim, the downtown flooded, damaging many commercial buildings and the entire ground floor of the composition high school, which serves grades seven through 12.
Walls and low shelving units had to be replaced along with the floors, and he didn’t want to waste any time getting started. As he explains, students were learning remotely due to COVID-19, and he didn’t want the renovations to delay their return in the fall.
In addition to replacing hardwood flooring, the gymnasium floor, which was brand new, had to be replaced. The building management system and electrical system were also ruined, as were books, computers, shelves and fitness equipment. In total, over 1,000 items needed to be replaced, Pilgrim says.
He got contractors into the building before it was even dry so they could provide estimates and he could create a plan. The pandemic presented additional challenges, because crews had to wear masks and socially distance from each other. There were also supply shortages, especially with the flooring materials which were sourced outside of North America. Pilgrim ordered most products sooner than he needed them so they’d arrive on time.
The repairs cost the district over $8 million, but he met his goal of having everything finished by the fall, making the school one of the first flooded buildings in the city to reopen.
While Pilgrim was glad to have students back in the fall—at the composite high school and district-wide—it presented a new set of challenges for him and his team.
He and staff placed sinks and soap dispensers in every classroom to make it more convenient for people to wash their hands more often. Custodians also began placing a sticker over the door frame after cleaning a room so the teacher would know it had been cleaned when they arrived in the morning. Seeing a sealed door provides extra peace of mind, Pilgrim says.
With so much additional work to do, he requested more custodians be hired, and administrators and the board of trustees approved.
“It shows that leadership not only values the safety of students but the needs of the facilities department,” he says. “I want my department to know how valued they are.”
He oversees 100 people and “empowers them to make their own decisions” while offering support and being available to listen. Transparency is also important to Pilgrim, because he wants his staff to know the scope of their work.
“It’s easier to do a job when you understand the bigger picture,” he says. “It gives them more confidence and motivation because they understand why things are being done a certain way.”
Although Pilgrim has held multiple leadership positions in his career, he’s always looking to develop his skills.
In January 2021, he was appointed to the board of directors of the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo. The nonprofit organization designs, builds and operates community recreation, sport and event facilities, and venues throughout the region.
As a board member, Pilgrim helps guide the organization’s leadership team while providing governance and oversight. He applied for the seat on the board, which is a volunteer position, because he understands facilities and loves sports and fitness.
“I was looking to help the organization by offering the skills I have,” he says. “This has been a goal of mine, so I’m pleased to be on the board now.”
Through his involvement with the board, he hopes he can impact the community the same way he’s been able to impact the schools.
“It’s very motivating to work here,” Pilgrim says. “Everything comes back to the kids and making sure everything is the best for them.”
View this feature in the Blueprint vol. VII 2021 Edition here.
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