School officials deny de facto privatization of janitorial services
Most of the Indian River County School Board accepted recent staff assurances that a de facto privatization of janitorial services is not taking place, but the janitorial union – and the School District’s own numbers – suggest otherwise.
While the janitorial staff for the county’s schools totaled 294 five years ago, according to Assistant Superintendent of Finance Carter Morrison, only 101 janitors are currently employed by the school district. At the same time, records show the district has upped the amount it pays for outside janitorial services from nothing in 2014 to nearly $300,000 per year.
Despite those figures, Superintendent Mark Rendell told the school board at a recent meeting the district “is not moving toward privatization.”
Privatization should not be happening because the board rejected the idea during July budget talks, mainly for security reasons. The majority said regular staff janitors, known by school personnel and students, are a better bet for pupil safety than outside contractors.
Shawn Frost was the only board member who maintained the Jessica Lunsford Act – which requires subcontractors who work around students to be fingerprinted and screened for some felonies – offered sufficient protection for students.
Despite assurances from Rendell and other senior staff members that outsourcing is not taking place, the number of non-employee contract janitors is increasing and the number of in-house janitors is decreasing, with attendant problems, according to janitors’ union representative Maureen Weisberg.
After hearing from Weisberg, the board organized a workshop where Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Risk Management William Fritz and Assistant Superintendent of Finance Carter Morrison spoke for over an hour. Most board members appeared satisfied with what Fritz and Morrison had to say.
Fritz said about one-third of the 22 schools in the district are dirty, one-third are middling and one-third are clean.
Claudia Jimenez and Dale Simchick accepted Fritz’s explanation that “it’s the work crew and the leadership of the work crew” that are the problem, and that improving “accountability” will clear up the problem so that good workers are no longer blamed for what bad workers neglect.
Even though Morrison admitted the district is 38 janitors short of what it should have – according to a bare-bones Department of Education formula – Morrison, Fritz and Rendell said understaffing and the size of the area to be cleaned are not the problem, because some large schools are clean.
Searcy asked for an example, and Fritz said Vero Beach High School is clean. That school, however, used 907 hours of outside labor last year. Weisberg said the schools Fritz says are clean use the most outside labor.
As for the cuts in School District janitorial staff, Morrison said the central office didn’t make the cuts directly. Principals were told to cut their budgets 10 percent, he said, and all 22 chose to cut their school’s janitorial staff.
The district began using Manpower, an employment agency, about three years ago to cover absent janitors because the district couldn’t get in-house janitors to cover for each other, Fritz said. Later he conceded, “We may also call in subcontractors in times of need.”
Records show the district went from spending nothing for outside janitorial services prior to 2014 to budgeting $171,000 last year and the same amount this year for “custodial substitutes” and “school clean teams.” But the budget doesn’t match purchase orders, which show a higher level of spending for outside janitors.
The discrepancy came to light when the school board approved more than $37 million in “recurring vendor” purchase orders in July, including $200,000 for Manpower, exceeding the budget by $29,000. The district also paid money to LF Staffing for cleaning services, $99,000 so far this year.
Weisberg said EE&G, an “environmental services” company, is often on school campuses as well. Purchase orders show EE&G was hired for “microbial cleaning” of “black particulate” or “assumed mold,” with the district paying nearly $117,000 last school year and nearly $51,000 so far this year.
Physical Plant Director John Earman, for the last few years, has turned off school buildings’ air conditioning over the summer and at day’s end, Weisberg said. Moisture condenses in the warm buildings and mold grows, increasing the janitors’ daily mopping and the need for EE&G’s services, she said.
In addition, Earman reduced maintenance workers from four to one per school, and now janitors clean gutters, replace ceiling tiles and do other maintenance work, Weisberg said. Grounds- keepers were cut from six to one and janitors now pick up trash and clean up grass and foliage clippings and ready grounds for games. Painters were cut from six to two, pushing still more work on janitors.
An in-house carpet crew used to clean carpets regularly until that staff was let go and the equipment was sold; now Stanley Steamer cleans once a year, she said, while janitors get blamed for the deteriorating appearance of carpets.
Although Fritz and Morrison assured board members the $40,000 spent on cleaning equipment and supplies is sufficient for janitors to do their jobs, Weisberg said they often buy their own cleaning supplies and that new cleansers provided by the district are ineffective. Head janitors used to be consulted about which supplies to buy, but not anymore.
“They bought vacuum cleaners that shut off every 15 minutes [to cool down]. Now it takes four vacuum cleaners to do the auditorium,” Weisberg said.
But most demoralizing, said Weisberg, is the questioning of janitors’ skills and work ethic. “We’re forced to take classes on how to vacuum or clean a bathroom when some of us have been doing this for 20 years or more.”
Morrison told the board there is no way the district could privatize janitors without them knowing it, because the union contract requires the district to give them a written notice of intent to privatize by Jan. 1.
Fritz corrected Morrison. He said the district does issue notice to the union each year “that we have the right to subcontract – it’s routine.”