Palisades High School recently ended its relationship with the director of operations, who in five years had transformed the campus from a facility that suffered from maintenance issues and was a morgue for rats to a well-maintained, modern space that brings in $1 million per year in rental revenue.
The school administration would not give a reason for the change.
In 2012, when Director of Operations Dave Riccardi took charge of the facilities portion at PaliHi, maintenance issues were particularly egregious, including clogged ducts, slow repairs and a plethora of vermin.
“I’ve never had any direction from anybody,” Riccardi told the News. “Everything you see was based on my vision and my wanting to bring operational excellence to a place where it was lacking. I was able to assemble a good team and a good crew. We were able to do amazing work in a short time span.”
From the old auto shop, which had become a packed storage room, Riccardi and his crew constructed an Innovation Lab, which now hosts auto shop, robotics and many other activities, and it has been highlighted on television and by a White House award. He and his team also created a Learning Lab, and he oversaw the renovations of both Gilbert and Mercer Halls.
“I’ve always had my hands on everything from the minute you step onto the campus all the way through to the back,” Riccardi said. “I was trying to bring the 21st century to a school that was built in 1961.”
Counselor Heather De Weese said of Riccardi, “He did a lot to beautify the campus,” such as hiring a muralist who worked on various projects on campus and beautifying the community areas. Riccardi also fought to move projects forward, so they weren’t held up by politics. “He has a vision.”
Principal Pam Magee declined to comment on Riccardi’s departure, citing a restriction from discussing personnel matters. Don Parcell, who has two children who have attended Pali, has been hired as a consultant to help until a new director of operations is hired. He most recently worked as a project consultant at Generation IX Technologies, an IT outsourcing firm.
Riccardi said the change was without cause, and that he has already begun a new opportunity working with other charter schools to help them the same way he did Pali. He is excited about his next endeavor, but also retains a great love and fondness for Pali.
Recently, outside a school board meeting, a half-dozen school board members, who were also teachers, staff and management, gathered around Riccardi and reminisced about all of the changes he had brought to the school. Health teacher Susan Ackerman, a 20-year teacher, recalled with horror the rats that used to live on campus.
Riccardi also vividly remembers the rats. “When I first walked into Mercer Hall, there were literally hundreds of dead rats under the stage,” he said. On his first entrance to the space, “my nose had started to run and my eyes had started to water. It was a sick building.”
He began to uncover the causes, including not only the rats, but also some mold in the foyer and duct work that hadn’t been cleaned perhaps since 1961. Riccardi found an estimated $150,000 to clean the ducts throughout the school, so that the students could again breathe clean air.
To eliminate the rats, he hired a cleaning crew, but they were so disgusted that they left on the first day and refused to come back. Eventually a team in hazmat suits removed the carcasses.
In Gilbert Hall (which was also renovated under Riccardi’s leadership), rats were also a problem and were actually living in the hollow bases of the students’ seats.
“When we removed the wood-chair seating, we found rat nests in nearly every seat base,” Riccardi said. “All I could think of is that the kids had no idea what they were sitting on top of.”
Riccardi also addressed more cosmetic changes, such as ridding the school of its institutional colors and creating a new color palette to weave through the campus and make it more inviting and welcoming. When graffiti or other cosmetic damage occurred, he had a team in place to correct the problems quickly so that the school community wasn’t affected.
“I said [to my crew], ‘Listen, if you can see it, they can see it,’” Riccardi said. Every day they would make rounds to look for problems “so the place would always look the same. That school goes through a tour of combat each day [with approximately 3,000 students], and the next day, we put it back together so we could keep delivering a quality place.”
He and his staff emailed the faculty to ask if they had any improvement requests, and then they worked to address them. For example, Ruth Grubb in the college counseling center said she had responded to such an email.
“We asked for a new carpet, and we got it,” she said, noting that the crew also painted and redecorated the center. Throughout the campus, she had also noticed various improvements during Riccardi’s tenure. “Everything is spruced up.”
For the past three years, Riccardi also worked with noted architect and urban designer Doug Suisman on improvements to the front of the school along Bowdoin, including landscaping, painting, new signs and furnishings.
“He was a delight to work with and very supportive of everything the booster club was trying to accomplish,” Suisman said.
In addition to addressing the look and maintenance of Pali, Riccardi also found innovative sources of income for the school by applying for Prop. 39 funds of which the school will receive about $500,000 overall. With these funds, he was able to put in new lighting and install solar filming on the windows to reduce both building heat and electricity costs. He worked through the LAUSD bureaucracy to get approval to install an air conditioning system in the large and small gyms (now scheduled for March of 2018).
He also worked to increase school safety by adding fences and cameras to the campus. “I’m so very proud of the accomplishments that I’ve been able to approve there,” Riccardi said. “I don’t mean it in a boastful way or bragging way. I’m happy and so proud of the work I’ve been able to achieve and that I had the opportunity to bring my skill-set to the school.”
In order to enhance the funding for the school, Riccardi also worked to improve rental revenue. For example, he negotiated a rental agreement with the local farmers market both to provide them a new home and bring income to the school. In addition, over the years, he has reached out to the film community to make Pali “the film-friendly school,” and he would field calls from location scouts on his personal cell phone at all hours of the day and night, so that Pali could garner as much income as possible, he said.
“You’d have to sell an awful lot of cupcakes to bring in what I’ve been able to bring in,” he joked.
Under Riccardi’s stewardship, rental income rose about 54 percent from $642,000 in 2011-12 to almost $1 million in the current school year, Chief Business Officer Greg Wood said.
Although filming can be disruptive and must be balanced carefully with school activities, Riccardi said he strived to make it work in large part because it helped Pali meet normal expenses and accomplish needed improvements such as a planned upgrade for the track and field that Riccardi had intended to shepherd through in the summer.
Also, budget challenges may worsen in coming years, according to Wood.
“We’re looking at sizable deficits absent economic growth,” said Wood, who noted that if revenue remains flat and expenses rise as scheduled, he projects shortfalls of over $1 million in two years, primarily due to significant increases in employee health and retirement benefits from state-sponsored plans.
Rich Wilken, who worked with Riccardi on alumni events and Fourth of July fireworks and concert planning, sits on the school’s budget committee, and said filming revenue was where the committee often turned for needed money.
Riccardi “made sure to make the least disruption, but provide the highest income for the school,” Wilken said. “I have nothing but good things to say about him . . . The school is a lot cleaner and ran smoother when he was around. I’m going to miss him.”