, school custodians made a case for their jobs and against outsourcing in a plea to the School Committee last week, arguing privatization is the wrong way for the district to proceed.
In a detailed presentation, Paul Saccoccia, national representative for NAGE Local 153, made the case that privatizing school custodial services would not save much money and would result in a significant drop in service quality. (The presentation is attached to this article).
Perhaps more importantly, almost 100 employees could lose their jobs and workers employed by outside contractors wouldn’t make enough to support their families. That would open the district’s door to transient workers who don’t have roots and ties to Cranston, Saccoccia and other speakers said.
“Privatization provides no job guarantees for longstanding employees who, by a large percentage, are city of Cranston taxpayers and more importantly, family income earners,” Saccoccia said.
The School Committee sought bids for custodial services in a request for proposals earlier this year — part of its larger effort to find cost savings to ease some of the enormous budget pressure on the school department.
Earlier this month, the School Committee entertained five bids for custodial services, one of which verbally promised a savings of about $8 million over a five-year contract period. At the same time, the committee is negotiating terms with the Local 152.
Saccoccia said the bids do not provide a detailed cost breakdown, which obscures the fact existing custodians perform much more work than what private workers would do for less money. As an example, one bid estimated the cost for snowplowing for one year at $72,000, or about $9,000 per storm. Saccoccia said that figure doesn’t take into account extra costs based on the number of inches of snowfall, how many storms the price covers or whether it includes multiple nights of sanding and salting — something the district doesn't have to worry about with the current custodians, who get the job done regardless.
“Why do the bids by these companies not break down the costs?” Saccoccia asked. “What about the additional costs for services not specifically spelled out in the bid? What about subcontracting in-house duties currently being performed?”
Some of those duties include trades, like plumbing, HVAC repair and asbestos removal, performed by district custodians who have myriad certifications and qualifications.
The district will have “no control” over the workers “who come in at $9 an hour and won’t be able to assist” like the current crew of custodians, Saccoccia said. “Landscaping, snow removal, hazardous waste, power washing, heavy lifting, deliveries from school to school. Pool cleaning at .”
And then there’s the connection custodians have with the school community in general. At in 2004, students dedicated their yearbook to former custodian Carmine Pisaturo, “someone who is seldom recognized but has an impact on all the children at Woodridge Elementary School,” the dedication read.
And in the foyer at Glen Hills, Gaspare Cozzo, a custodian who passed away in 2003, is memorialized with a plaque dedicating the foyer in his name in recognition of his hard work and love for the school.
“Do you think you’d get that from transient, $9-an-hour employees?” Saccoccia asked. “We’re always willing to roll our sleeves up with the school district in these hard economic times and do our due diligence to try and forge as much savings as we can.”
Custodians and maintenance workers gave up raises for two years and took on higher health insurance premiums under a three-year contract approved by the School Committee in 2009. The contract was estimated to save $110,725 over the contract period, even with raises in year three and several laid off employees getting their jobs back as part of the deal.
Both sides are at the negotiating table and will continue talks tonight when the School Committee meets in executive session.
Steven Hogan, chief electrician for the district, said he “doesn’t want to see the fate of Cranston Public Schools left in the hands of people who are unprepared or don’t have the knowledge of the buildings.”
Nobody has mentioned who would train the new custodians brought in by the outside contractor, Hogan said, and that would make it impossible for tradespeople to do their jobs. Right now, Hogan said, the buildings are taken care of by a workforce of people who have institutional knowledge and intimate understanding of the buildings. Cranston has 1.5 million square feet to take care off and Warwick has a similar amount. Yet Cranston gets the job done with a much smaller staff.
“When we tell people the size of the workforce, they can’t believe we’re able to take care of the buildings. The system works because of the support staff and that consists of custodians,” Hogan said.
City Council President Anthony Lupino also addressed the School Committee, stating that the desire for immediate savings derived through privatization is often short sighted.
“The workers in this city have come to the table time and time again when they’ve been asked to bail us out through tough financial times,” Lupino said. “Some people think it’s a menial job but I see a lot of pride in our custodians and they do a good job.”
The union’s presentation claimed the average custodian’s salary would decrease from $37,000 to $20,000 on average and their benefits would starkly worsen. At $20,000, the average three-person household would qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, which defeats the purpose of saving taxpayer money, Saccoccia said.
Custodians start at step 1 with a salary of $14.23 per hour, increasing gradually to step 9 at $17.92 per hour.
The average employee has between 15 and 25 years of service with the district and 56 percent live in Cranston and pay taxes in the city.
The union’s presentation also included excerpts from a series of troubling news stories from around the country associated with private custodial contractors.
One contractor, Pennsylvania-based GCA Service Group, “has a reputation of putting profit first, employees and students last,” Saccoccia said.
In one instance in Cree, North Carolina, 37 undocumented workers were caught in an immigration raid, all but 10 employed by GCA. In another incident, a Texas custodian was found dead in a boys locker room after an apparent autoerotic asphyxiation gone-wrong. The deceased used a false identity to hide the fact he was a registered sex offender working illegally in schools. And then there was the Huntingdon High School worker who was accused of raping a 16-year-old who had a criminal record, and a La Coste, Texas, worker who stole school electronic equipment and had a criminal record for burglary.
“Privatization does not protect our city and our children,” Saccoccia said.