The Push to Privatize
Locals fight to stay on the right road
“Outsourcing our school custodians threatens the quality of work and the safety of our schools,” custodian Bob Calderwood wrote in a recent online petition to try and save jobs in MSAD 28 & FiveTown CSD in the Rockport area. Calderwood and his wife who are long-time custodians in the district organized a group to explain the effects of outsourcing on the community. Currently, the district received several bids that would bring private companies into the schools while eliminating existing public school custodial jobs. The group created an online petition and is gaining media attention as well for their efforts. “We need the community to understand that outsourcing threatens the safety of the students and staff. Our custodians know who belongs in each building and who doesn’t. This is not something an outside contractor, with high turnover, would be able to identify,” said Calderwood. A similar campaign to stop custodial privatization is happening in Scarborough as well where nearly 1,000 community members, including local business owners have signed a petition to keep the jobs local with their existing custodial staff.
While the push to privatize is gaining momentum in the state many districts are not successful in their efforts to actually outsource staff. Local communities, with the help of MEA, have recently stopped privatization in several communities including RSU 4 where the district wanted to outsource bus drivers. The local association was able to bring the issue to voters who overwhelmingly told the school board they wanted to keep their existing drivers. Currently, statewide, there are less than 10 districts that outsource some or all of their custodial work. Similar community rejections to outsourcing for custodial work happened in both RSU 23 (Saco/Dayton) and South Portland. In fact, while school boards claim the effort saves money for taxpayers what many fail to realize, in the initial stages, are the implications of what privatization means for those workers who may be forced out, for the community and state as a whole.
A recent report revealed that privatization would impoverish custodians. The report, conducted by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, looked at a recent case of a proposal to privatize custodial work in New Haven, CT. The study found that privatizing school custodial services would cut janitor salaries in half and could force families onto food stamps and state-funded health care and “have disastrous consequences for New Haven’s custodians and their families.”
The PERI report was done at the request of the custodians union by Assistant Research Professor Dr. Jeannette Wicks-Lim who told a local Connecticut paper that while the union funded the report “…the research I did was all my own. I did it as an independent researcher.”
Local custodians in both MSAD 28 and Scarborough argue safety at schools will not only suffer, but cleanliness will as well due to private companies hiring part-time staff who are likely not invested in the schools and the community. Debby Bean, a custodian in Scarborough, also questions the cost savings. “If I lose my job you can bet I won’t be able to pay my bills. Even if I continue to work as a custodian in the district for the private company I will make less money and getting a second part-time job just won’t be enough—I won’t be able to make ends meet. That means I will end up costing taxpayers more because I will have to rely on state and federal services just to survive. All of that can be avoided if the district doesn’t outsource,” says Bean. Bean’s frustration is echoed in the Connecticut study which concluded “federal and state taxpayers would be subsidizing the low pay of the (private company’s) contract bid by covering the cost of the basic necessities that are currently paid for through the workers’ salaries. Low-paying jobs can also create new costs for the local economy due to increased poverty.”
In addition to pushing families into poverty, there is a concern among teachers and support staff surrounding the quality of work performed by a private company. Whether it is food service, bus drivers or custodians, private companies tend to save more money by hiring part-time employees, offering less pay and little or no health insurance. Studies show these types of jobs typically attract less experienced employees, have a higher turnover rate which could affect things like the cleanliness of buildings, classrooms and cafeterias. Custodial staff in Scarborough, for example, have a combined 311 years of experience working in the district, most have specialized training in things like blood-borne pathogens, and many not only live in the community where they work but they also volunteer in the district as well.
“Our custodians are a big part of our school "family.” They take great pride in their work and they work hard to keep our schools clean and safe. They always go the extra mile to support the students and staff without being asked. They are so nice to the kids and staff. It would be a huge mistake to outsource their jobs! Let's keep them in our school community where they belong!” wrote Karen Lindholm from Scarborough when she signed the petition to save the custodians’ jobs.
Both MSAD 28 and Scarborough associations are still negotiating with their respective school boards. In the meantime, the MEA created an ESP Ad Hoc Committee that includes members from across the state, to take a closer look at the issue of privatization and ways to combat it at the local level.
For more resources about ESP issues, NEA has a virtual library which can be found at: www.nea-espresources.net.