Custodians are 'family,' residents say
Rockport — Custodians were the heroes of the hour, as approximately 100 people turned out to oppose hiring a private contractor to provide custodial services for Camden Hills Regional High School, Camden-Rockport Middle School and Camden-Rockport Elementary School.
At a joint meeting of the Maine School Administrative District 28 and Five Town Community School District school boards Tuesday, Dec. 3, speakers were polite, even deferential, to board members, but sentiment in the high school's Strom Auditorium was unanimous against outsourcing custodial work, even though it could potentially save taxpayers money.
A report from the districts' Joint Committee to Investigate Contracting Custodial Services was presented by committee Chairman Tori Manzi, a member of the CSD School Board. The committee was formed in July to look into whether outsourcing custodial services would result in savings.
Manzi said only one of the three companies that bid was considered a candidate to work for MSAD 28: Maine Real Estate Management, based in Bangor. The other bidders were ruled out either because of cost or “lack of fit” with the districts, according to the report.
The report showed that outsourcing custodial services for Camden Hills Regional High School would not provide any savings; in fact, it would cost more than is being spent now.
However, MSAD 28 could realize up to $138,000 in savings, once any current custodial employees who were laid off had exhausted their unemployment benefits, according to projections presented by the committee. Those numbers showed that for the 2014-15 school year, the district would pay roughly an extra $1,700 if all 12 custodians were on unemployment; in 2015-16, there would be savings of about $93,000; and in 2016-17, with the district no longer paying unemployment, savings would be around $138,000.
Manzi said she contacted the nine school districts in the state that outsource at least some of their custodial services, or have done so in the past, most of which were near Portland. As of the meeting, she had not heard from all of them, but of those she had talked to, all were happy with their contracted services, and would do it again, she said.
She said officials at the outsourcing schools told her turnover was low and employee wages were in line with the market – “at least $10 an hour.” (Maine Real Estate's bid was based on wages of $12.17 per hour.) School administrators were not required to oversee the contracted custodians; there was a company contact who worked with the school's personnel officer. The contracted employees were seen as no different from those on the school's payroll, she said.
Manzi acknowledged Maine Real Estate has not provided services in a school before. So one thing for the MSAD 28 board to consider is “do we want to be a guinea pig for this company to come in and learn in our buildings at this time?”
The report also noted several unknown costs associated with contracting for custodial services. One of these would be the actual cost of unemployment benefits if current employees were laid off. Another is the cost of negotiating with the Megunticook Bus Drivers and Custodians Association (MBDCA) regarding the effect of outsourcing on the remaining employees in the unit. A third unknown is the cost of wages and benefits to be negotiated with the MBDCA when its contract expires June 30, 2014.
Therefore, the report concluded, in considering whether to outsource its custodial services, the MSAD 28 School Board must weigh the potential cost-savings of contracting against the value of the current employees and potential risk from unknown factors.
Leading off the comment period, CSD School Board member Jim McBrian asked whether Maine Real Estate would hire current custodial employees. Manzi responded the contractor “would love to have a turn-key operation,” but said it would offer less generous pay and benefits than the employees have now.
Many elementary and middle school parents also spoke. James Cook sounded a theme often repeated during the evening, that the relationship between students and custodians is valuable enough to keep paying for.
“Do we believe the people who clean our schools are worth less than they are currently being paid?”
Mark Rattner said his second-grader knows elementary school custodians Bob, Jan and Greg, and they know him.
“It's not about money,” he said. “I want people that know my son.”
He also expressed concern for the custodians as members of the community.
“What we would be doing is destroying the lives of these people” by taking away their jobs, Rattner said.
Seventh-grade teacher Katie Bauer said in her 28 years of teaching, the custodians have helped her with a wide range of things, not all of which are part of their job description. She said they had done everything from fixing leaks in her classroom to checking on her when she was working late.
“The custodians are part of our community.”
Some speakers were custodians themselves, or their spouses. Rene Capalbo said her husband John works at the elementary school. Her husband brings furniture home to fix it, then takes it back to the school, she said.
“It's an insult to all of them [the custodians] to put a number on their head. … It's our family, it's our community, it's our livelihood.”
At one point, a group of three elementary school girls who identified themselves only as Allison, Leah and Tess went to the microphone. Allison read a message from the group.
“We're kind of sad about the janitors' leaving, because we've known them for a long time. … They feel like a child's best friend.”
Middle school custodian Alan Twitchell said he began working for MSAD 28 in 1989.
“There are many things that we do above and beyond the call of duty that nobody knows about,” he said.
He told a story about a boy who was caught stealing. He and the principal agreed the boy would work with Twitchell as his penalty. He cleaned "until we were both very pleased."
Twitchell said he has helped at least 50 students off the roof of the school, and has helped many parents and teachers jump-start their cars.
He concluded, “If you buy a cheap car, you get a cheap ride.”
Another speaker was Donny Richards, a bus driver since 2000. He said he had seen the kindergarteners he started with graduate from high school, but he could not imagine how elementary school custodian Bob Calderwood could remember the name of every child as they got off the bus.
“It's a family affair here. … We all work together for the same thing. And that's for the benefit of the children.”
The Five Town CSD School Board is scheduled to meet tonight, Wednesday, Dec. 4, to vote on the Joint Committee's recommendation, and the MSAD 28 School Board is to meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the elementary school, to consider whether to outsource the district's custodial services.
Sarah E. Reynolds is a reporter for the Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, hike and play word games.
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