The Alexandria School Board will talk with the mayor and city council on Wednesday night on their respective budgets, and on top of the list of many participants is a recent decision to eliminate 30 custodial positions from Alexandria City Public Schools by the end of this school year. Now some school board members are hoping that the city will help to find the money needed to keep the positions.
“I generally am not a big fan of blue collar outsourcing,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “It’s primarily a pay and benefits play when you do it, so I have a little bit of pause about that. But ultimately how the money is spent in the school side is the decision of the elected school board. We simply approve and deal with what that number is.”
The School Board approved Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings’ $285.5 million Operating Budget last month in a 6-3 vote, with the negative votes cast over the custodial issue. The budget is a 4.3 percent increase over last year’s budget, which includes a 1 percent market rate adjustment and full step increase for ACPS staff. It also ends the ACPS careers of 30 custodians throughout the city for a cost savings of $500,000, pays them a severance package of $1,500 for every year of service to the school system and provides unemployment benefits and job services.
Board member Michelle Rief, who criticized staff for not including the board on major staff decisions before putting the cost-cutting measure in the budget, voted against the superintendent’s plan and hopes that the city council can help restore the positions.
“The budget process will still take a couple of months to complete,” Rief said. “It’s my hope that City Council and the School Board can find a way to provide the quality custodial services that our schools deserve.”
Hutchings and staff told the board at a Feb. 19 work session that his goal is to outsource the custodial positions to a private contractor that will guarantee hiring all 30 employees. ACPS also received written confirmation from four contractors that they would hire all of the custodians to work for at least $15 an hour with vacation and sick leave. The decision reverses the decision made by the board in 2007 to let the custodians stay on until they retire from the school system and for their positions to eventually be filled through attrition by private contractors.
“The expectation is that 100 percent – 30 for 30 – of our custodians will be offered the position to work with that contractor,” Hutchings said, adding that ACPS will work to get the custodians other available jobs in the system, like as school bus drivers and kitchen staff. “We’re actually going to have one-on-one sessions with each of the custodians to actually go through all of their options to help them plan what they would like to do and what’s going to be best for their families with our HR department.”
Finding The Money
Board Member Chris Suarez voted for the budget, but said that nobody on the board wants to put the custodians out on the street.
“I think the struggle for a lot of us is that we’ve had four superintendents in the last five years, a lot of instability and we want to make sure that we stabilize the governance of ACPS for the long run for the kids,” Suarez said. “There’s a lot of complexity in this and it’s really tough, but, you know, I think if the community comes out and feels strongly about this and can convince council that we should put more money in the budget where we can figure out a way which wasn’t proposed during the add/deletes to add the money but also take out things that aren’t going to have a huge impact on student achievement, I’m willing to have that conversation.”
Alexandria City Councilor John Taylor Chapman did not mince words in his opinion of the decision to lay off the custodians.
“I think it sends a chilling signal,” Chapman said. “We’re frankly at the beginning of a relationship between community and schools, whether it be school board or the superintendent about how we’re going to deal with employees overall. If it’s custodians this year what is it going to be next year?”
The Education Association of Alexandria has spoken against the measure – most recently on Monday at the monthly meeting of the Alexandria Democratic Committee.
“First and foremost, we want the board to insert funding in the budget for the 30 custodian positions,” EAA President Dawn Lucas said at the meeting, adding that she and custodians will speak on the issue at upcoming public hearings. “We also would like for them to follow the attrition plan that was put into place in 2007 and we basically want to develop it in a way that people aren’t forced out of Alexandria City Public Schools, that they can leave of their own volition.”
Former School Board Member Christopher Lewis said that it is within the board’s power to reverse the decision.
“If they choose to, they can change this decision and there’s a lot that goes on with that,” Lewis told the ADC on Monday night. “But it is still possible if they choose to, but they need to hear from the public that that’s what the public wants.”