Cash-Strapped Schools Cutting Custodial Workers

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Cash-strapped school districts are turning to some of their lowest-paid employees to bear the weight of budget cuts. Systems from New Jersey, Indiana and Michigan are joining Nashville schools in their plans to outsource custodial services. School officials say they are trying to avoid making cuts to the classroom.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Custodians have become prime targets for school districts in a budget pinch. To save money and teachers, many systems around the country are beginning to outsource their custodial work. But in many schools, custodians play their own educational role.

From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports.

BLAKE FARMER: At Carter Lawrence Elementary, south of downtown Nashville, students love to work with Mr. Preston Birdsong.

(Soundbite of children)

Unidentified Child: I help wash the tables.

FARMER: In his nearly three decades here, Birdsong has seen eight principals come and go. His longevity earns him respect as a disciplinarian.

Mr. PRESTON BIRDSONG (Custodian, Carter Lawrence Elementary School): Hey, come out of there. John. Boy.

FARMER: The boy stares at the floor in the apparent shame of getting caught sneaking to the bathroom.

Mr. BIRDSONG: You through? OK. Do your hands and go.

FARMER: While stern, Birdsong says he's careful not to come down too hard.

Mr. BIRDSONG: When I first became a head custodian, we had a meeting, and they told me something that kind of stuck with me: Be careful how you treat the kids, because you might be the first smiling face they see in the morning time, and the last smiling face they see in the evening time.

FARMER: Birdsong worries that smiling face won't be his come fall, but that of someone with a private cleaning company who's not quite as committed to children.

Thousands of custodians around the country are in the same position. At least four school districts in New Jersey are considering outsourcing. So are systems in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and others. Nashville's Board of Education plans to privatize more than 600 custodians to save a projected $5 million.

(Soundbite of drumming)

FARMER: Leaders of the Service Employees International Union beat drums outside the district's central office in Nashville. Michael Thomas says it's an insult to be laid off, only to be hired back with lower pay.

Mr. MICHAEL THOMAS (Custodian, Dodson Elementary School): We lose everything. Only thing we would be getting is like scraps to a table that goes to a dog.

FARMER: Custodians in Nashville schools make an average of $13 an hour.

Dr. JESSE REGISTER (Superintendent, Nashville Public Schools): We know that a lot of our custodial staff are lower-wage employees.

FARMER: That's Nashville's superintendent, Jessie Register, who says the district is doing what it can to help. Current employees will get first dibs on the outsourced jobs, and like privatization efforts in other cities, Register has asked that the contractor include a retirement plan.

Dr. REGISTER: There is some loss of benefit there, but what we want to do is minimize that so that people still feel good about where they're working and the fact that they are continuing to work in, hopefully, many of the same jobs.

FARMER: In southwest Florida's Collier County, many custodians did stick around after their jobs were outsourced a year and a half ago to save $3 million. Michelle Labute is an administrator there.

Ms. MICHELLE LABUTE (Administrator, Collier County School District): The downside, obviously, was in the beginning when some employees were taking a cut in pay. The employees were no longer in the Florida Retirement System. But in terms of the district, our services are as good, if not better.

FARMER: If there's no sacrifice in service and the savings are real and sustained, school finance experts say outsourcing makes sense, especially if the alternative is cutting teachers.

Gary Price(ph) isn't giving up his job, but this second grade teacher says custodians, like Preston Birdsong, aren't just mopping floors.

Mr. GARY PRICE (Teacher): I think of him as one of the couple of people at this school that sort of hold the whole school together.

FARMER: Because of that good will toward many custodians, some districts wouldn't touch outsourcing in the past. With years of budget cuts behind them, school systems now see privatization as one of the least controversial ways to make up a deficit.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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