Ralph Knese – Parkway Schools
- Written by: Kate Gardner
- Produced by: Zachary Brann & Alyssa LoVerso
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
After 33 years working in the same industry, Ralph Knese had a choice to make.
He figured he could stay in his comfortable, predictable job until he was ready to retire, or he could finish his career with a new, exciting challenge. He knows it’s a little unconventional, but he’s happy to have gone with the latter.
For the past two years, Knese has been the director of facilities at Parkway Schools. While he uses some of his skills and knowledge from the natural gas industry, the position has come with a learning curve. That’s exactly what he wanted, though.
“Most people downsize before retirement, but I’ve always colored outside the lines a little bit,” he says. “I was looking for a new challenge and to expand my horizons. It’s the final chapter of my career and a way for me to use all my skills and experience in a new way.”
Precautions and protocols
Parkway Schools serves 17,000 students across eight municipalities in western St. Louis County, Missouri. The district is comprised of 31 schools, making Knese responsible for maintaining over 3.5 million square feet of space.
The most immediate change he made when the COVID-19 pandemic started was to increase custodial work and ensure all schools were being cleaned more frequently and thoroughly, especially high-touch areas, such as railings and doorknobs. The district already had some sanitizing backpack sprayers, and Knese ordered more so each school would have a few.
He and his team also inspected the HVAC systems at every school to make sure they were running as efficiently as possible. He accelerated the replacement of filters, regardless of where they were in their life cycle, and used a fogging agent to disinfect and clean ducts. In general, he’s tried to increase the flow of air coming from outside.
“I think we’re doing the best we can,” Knese says. “We’re following the recommended precautions and protocols and trying to stay consistent.”
The district has been encouraging everyone to wear masks, wash their hands and socially distance as much as possible. These standards, along with the increased cleaning, have helped put people’s minds at ease, especially parents, Knese says.
“Parents are scared and want to keep their kids safe, but I think we’re doing the small things right,” he says. “The biggest thing is making people comfortable with the changes being made.”
Designed to last
Knese has recently been planning for other changes in the district as well, albeit unrelated to COVID-19.
He’s been preparing for a 2022 bond initiative that will be voted on in the fall of next year. Getting ready for a bond issue is a two-year process, he says, and he’ll soon be doing evaluations and field verifications to determine what needs attention.
Knese already knows replacing building envelopes, such as doors, roofs and windows, will be a priority because many are reaching the end of their life cycle. He plans to look at every building to see what other work needs to be done and will survey the principal of every school to see what they want and need. He also expects there to be a public forum within six months to a year.
Unrelated to the bond, Knese and his staff recently upgraded the basketball and four-square courts at four playgrounds by installing new concrete overlays. The courts were previously made of asphalt that required frequent resealing and repainting.
Concrete overlay, a four-inch layer of concrete and micro-synthetic fibers, makes the courts more durable and long-lasting. It also makes it possible for the district to use the courts as alternative or overflow parking lots, if needed, without damaging the concrete. He says he hopes to add the overlays to tennis courts soon, too.
The variety in Knese’s work, whether it be responding to the pandemic or fixing playgrounds, has been satisfying and fulfilling, he says.
“The job encompasses a lot of intricate pieces,” he says. “No two problems are ever the same.”
Change and variety have dictated much of Knese’s career, despite spending more than three decades in the natural gas industry. He got his start at 18 years old at a printing company before moving on to work in the chlorine repackaging industry, book binding and construction.
“I haven’t been afraid to expand my horizons and try new things,” he says.
When Knese started in the gas industry as a laborer, he found he enjoyed it and was soon in a management position. For the nine years prior to working at Parkway Schools, he was a field safety coordinator at Spire, an energy company in Missouri.
The switch to education has given him plenty of challenges, and he says he’s grateful to his team for its support. He oversees 250 people and works to maintain open communication and transparency with them.
“I want to give them a voice and make sure their ideas are heard,” Knese says. “None of us are as smart as all of us. We know we’re all in this together to create the best environment for kids.”
View this feature in the Blueprint vol. VII 2021 Edition here.
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