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Op-Ed: Privatizing public school custodians and facility management

NJ school districts would be wise to think twice about privatization, which often means substantial hidden costs and reduced performance

“As hard as you work?” Teachers couldn’t believe that Yule Bush, a dedicated veteran custodian in the Camden Public Schools, was being handed a pink slip. Often the first to enter the building and the last to leave, he is beloved by the students and teachers of Sumner Elementary School, an aging school built during the Coolidge administration in 1926. His expertise, hard work, and knowledge of Sumner was recently acknowledged by a student in a tear-jerking note who “admired the good work I do, keeping the school clean and smelling good,” according to Bush.

Unfortunately, Bush is not alone. He and his hardworking colleagues in Camden and other cities are losing their jobs as more and more districts choose to privatize school custodial staff. School districts in New Jersey as diverse as Clifton, Woodstown, Lacey, and Paterson are privatizing school custodial-staff members at alarming rates. As members of the Healthy Schools Now coalition, we are concerned about the impact of school privatization on school facility quality, as well as the social costs of this troubling trend. The proper investment in custodial staff will ensure adherence to the following sound advice of colonial activist and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

With the average age of New Jersey’s public schools at more than 50 years old and with many schools dating back to the turn of the 20th century, we are concerned that custodian privatization will have negative ramifications for the quality of our school facilities. All too often, custodial privatization is a euphemism for the wholesale replacement of knowledgeable and dedicated veteran staff members like Bush with lesser-paid temporary workers who don’t understand the unique challenges of addressing the significant facility issues of New Jersey’s aging public schools.

According to noted education scholar Walter Farrell, privatization leads to lower quality services, accountability problems, and hidden costs; most importantly, the financial benefits remain unproven. According to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice, custodial privatization processes suffer from loopholes in contracts, misleading cost-benefit analyses, indirect costs, and unrealistic introductory rates.

Due to the inexperience of the privatized school custodial staff and its lack of appropriate staffing, President Clarice Berry of the Chicago Principals Association, testified before a Chicago City Council committee that she was “terrified” of what would happen when the snow began. According to the Chicago Tribune, parents claim that the unsanitary bathroom conditions, overflowing garbage cans and soiled napping cots are the result of inadequate custodial care following the Chicago Board of Education’s decision to award multimillion-dollar custodial management contracts to two firms, Aramark and SodexoMAGIC.

Procurement and finance records obtained by the WBEZ 91.5 FM radio station show that Aramark billed the district nearly $22 million over the amount budgeted for the first 11 months of its three-year contract.

The magnitude of the custodian’s significance increases tremendously in buildings with existing facility problems. Understanding buildings as surgeons know frequent patients, competent and permanent custodial staff provide crucial support for maintaining a high-quality school.

Custodians often know best how to address severe issues like malfunctioning heating and cooling systems, and they conduct the necessary preventive maintenance that is crucial to slowing building decay. Classrooms that haven’t been properly cleaned and maintained may lead to infestations of pests, and the rapid deterioration of facilities. When you try teaching in the freezing cold or the sweltering heat, you quickly realize that a custodian’s expertise and skills are every bit as important as those of a principal, as they relate to the smooth administration of a school building.

Healthy Schools Now is also concerned with the disproportionate impact of cuts on custodians of color. As noted in a recent article in The New York Times, roughly one in five black adults are employed in the public sector and are about 30 percent more likely to have a public-sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics. Bruce Bodner, the lawyer for the Transit Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia, makes it clear that the disparate racial impact of privatization and layoffs, “With public employment in general being under attack, it’s really an attack on these communities.”

Investing in schools means investing in the personnel that keep our buildings safe and healthy. As the debate around equitable school-funding rages, New Jersey school districts would be wise to think twice about privatization, which often carries substantial hidden costs coupled with reduced performance.

Jerell Blakeley is a campaign organizer for the New Jersey Work Environment Council and chair of the Healthy Schools Now coalition.

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