Summertime might be a relaxing break for students and teachers, but it's the busiest time of year for hundreds of school district employees.

These behind-the-scenes workers in departments such as maintenance, food service, transportation, grounds keeping, information technology and security have worked hard for the past three months to get ready for the upcoming year.

Mark Cobb, who orchestrates much of the preparations for Charleston County schools, likened the first day of school to the Super Bowl for the operations department.

'It is when we are in the spotlight,' said Cobb, executive director of facility services. 'Everything is under the microscope: How did the first day go? It's always a big, big day.'

Planning for the upcoming school year begins as early as February, and as soon as school ends, Cobb's folks go into action. They've been full throttle since then.

This summer has been somewhat different in that five schools were closed, students were shifted elsewhere and five new buildings are to be opened. The changes intensified the operations' department workload, and Cobb has been impressed with what they've been able to accomplish.

Here are a few highlights:

• A comprehensive summer cleaning of about 7 million square feet of building and classroom space, which included stripping and waxing floors, cleaning carpets and washing windows and walls.

• Relocating 18 mobile classrooms. Cobb compared the process with moving a mobile home – security, fire alarms, utilities, phones, sewage, computers and wiring must be disconnected and then reconnected at the new site.

• Installing about 2,000 new computers in 57 schools' labs and refurbishing or doing routine maintenance on 15,000 student computers.

Maintenance and repairs

Much of the work district staff does during the summer either can't be done while students are in school or is simply easier to do when buildings are unoccupied. Projects that affect students' health or safety always are the district's first priority, but summer is an opportunity to handle more routine maintenance requests that schools make throughout the year.

They've tackled smaller capital projects at Baptist Hill High, Lincoln High, Morningside Middle and Memminger Elementary schools. They've converted a storage room into an office, installed new roofing, built new bus parking lots and upgraded football bleachers.

They constructed vestibules to enhance security at 14 schools, upgraded lighting to make it more energy efficient at five schools and replaced more than 30 heating and air conditioning units. More schools received paint jobs than those that didn't, and 2,100 acres of property have been mowed each week.

Athletic fields have been painted, playgrounds received nearly 4,000 square yards of new mulch and flower beds were spruced up with nearly 7,400 bales of pine straw.

'The taxpayers have invested quite a bit into buildings and the building program, and we're doing the best (we can) to maintain that investment for them,' Cobb said.

Food and buses

One area that stays particularly busy during the summer is the food service department. Cobb compared it with operating one of the largest restaurant chains in the county, with more than 70 kitchens and more than 35,000 breakfasts and lunches served daily.

The food service department spends a chunk of its summer dealing with students' applications for the free and reduced lunch program. Perhaps because of the economy, district staff have fielded more phone calls than ever about the program, and they expect to have processed 23,000 student applications by the end of August.

Breakfast and lunch menus are set in the spring, and Walter Campbell, the district's director of nutrition and food service, spends some of his summer coordinating delivery schedules with suppliers. In schools throughout the district, kitchen hoods and walk-in coolers and freezers were cleaned, and 350 computers that log students' payments were upgraded.

The district's transportation department begins planning the number of buses it will need as early as March, and two full-time employees spend their summers scheduling bus routes for students.

'They are still routing kids today,' said Katie McClure, the school district's director of transportation, last week.

The district's 368 buses will run 4 million miles this year, the equivalent of 160 trips around the world. To ensure their longevity, buses are inspected, repaired and washed; and other district vehicles, such as those for driver's education, food service and special activities, also receive preventive maintenance.

Getting ready

Although teachers aren't around during the summer, school principals stay busy making plans for the upcoming year. In addition to planning, Reginald Bright, principal of Ladson Elementary School, has sorted through new textbooks, registered parents, tweaked the school handbook and filled out paperwork required for high-poverty schools. The week before school begins is just as hectic as the first week of school.

'There are so many things that have to be completed,' he said.

Those whose summers are spent preparing buildings and classrooms for the new year consider it a job well-done if teachers and principals can do their jobs without a problem.

'We are tremendously proud of what we do, even if it is unknown by many,' said John McCarron, executive director of information technology.