Jamar Hines is in a predicament. For the last 13 years he’s worked as a custodian at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, but now he’s among 30 Alexandria City Public Schools custodians who face losing their jobs, state retirement and ACPS health benefits by the end of the school year due to a recent action by the Alexandria School Board.
“I always promised my sons that if they did their job well everything would pan out, but that’s not necessarily true now,” Hines said. “No matter how hard you work you can still lose your job.”
The school board recently approved Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings’ $285.5 million Operating Budget 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, and includes a 1 percent market rate adjustment and full step increase for ACPS staff. It also ends the careers of 30 custodians who have worked less than 20 years at ACPS 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.
Hutchings says that the severance package for the staffers is generous, and that four contractors ACPS reached out to pledged to hire all 30 custodians at the living wage [$15 an hour] and provide health and other benefits. The move would also mean that 14 schools in the 17-school system will be cleaned by three different contractors. Ten schools are currently being cleaned by two contractors.
“Typically a severance package is given to individuals and it’s given to them to have kind of like a buffer while they’re looking for another job. That is not our expectation,” Hutchings said at Wednesday’s joint budget work session with the board and the Alexandria City Council. “Our expectation is that they move into the contractor’s position. In addition, they still receive the severance package. So that’s additional dollars that is put in their pockets and their take-home pay during this transitional time.”
The remaining 14 custodians who have been with ACPS for more than 20 years are safe from losing their jobs and, for now, will be allowed to retire with the school system. Still, even though they’ve been told to expect to sign their one-year annual contracts in June, some are expressing reservations that the school system will live up to its word.
An Uncertain Future
Hines, who attended T.C. Williams High School as a student with Hutchings, was in the audience with 14 other custodians at last Thursday night’s school board meeting. The 40-year-old makes $17.10 an hour and will likely be taking a pay cut. He said that he has two asthmatic children and will lose health benefits during the transition, and will also lose his Virginia Retirement System benefits.
“We were told we could have these jobs until we retired,” Hines said. “It’s about the benefits for us. We lose all the benefits.”
The contractors that responded to the ACPS request for information reported that they offer retirement programs, but are not affiliated with the Virginia Retirement System. That means that the custodians invested in VRS will not receive full retirement benefits.
Sitting near Hines was Gloria Deyo, who has worked as an ACPS custodian for 24 years. While the outsourcing will not affect her, she worries about what the board might do down the road.
“I’m hoping I can go to 30 years,” said Deyo, who works at John Adams Elementary School. “I’m 58 years old. I’m almost in my sixties, and that’s how I feel about the whole lot of them. They’re all broken down. I got bad knees, bad hips and what job am I going to get after this? It’s just a shocker to all of us, because in 2007 we were told we were going to be able to retire. There wasn’t going to be anybody losing their jobs… And we’ve got dynamite benefits – eye care, dental care, everything you want. We have that. That’s why we’re crying.”
Ernest Ward is a custodian at John Adams, and said that he would have a hard time finding another job.
“We are not 20 years old anymore. Our bodies can’t take that,” Ward said.
As far as the quality of the work, Deyo joked that she has always had a little obsessive compulsive disorder.
“Ever since I was a child I’ve been OCD. When all the other kids played doctor, I was always cleaning up. My parents never had to tell me to make my bed,” she said. “Now, when I do a classroom, all the desks have to be perfectly in a row and all the chairs have to be pushed in. I like things orderly. And most of my teachers know when I’m not working, because I do things the same way every time. Every mirror is wiped perfectly. I mop my classrooms every day, not every other day. I just like to do it my way.”
Where The Buck Stops
The school board was publicly divided during its Wednesday night meeting with council and spent an hour-and-a-half discussing the topic. Some members supported the superintendent and said that the school system is an administrative and facilitative mess needing strong leadership and reorganization, while others asked council to help find the $500,000 and reinstitute the custodial positions. As it stands, the matter will remain unresolved until the city council approves its fiscal year 2020 budget on May 1.
“This was not a cost–savings driven decision. This is really about having the efficiency within our buildings,” Hutchings said at the meeting. “I really know that we have done everything possible and beyond in many ways to have a smooth transition throughout this time.”
Hutchings also said at the meeting that if presented with the funds he would rather them be spent on new textbooks than the custodians.
The school board decided at a board retreat in 2007 to go through with an attrition plan and let the custodial positions eventually be filled by contractors after employees retire. But ACPS reportedly made more than a dozen new custodial hires after that period, and with the subsequent installation of new school boards over the years and a high turnover rate in ACPS central office [four superintendents in the last five years], the attrition plan was disregarded. That was until a facilities audit determined that the mix of ACPS custodians and hired contractors was an administrative inefficiency and that eliminating the positions would save $500,000 from the ACPS operating budget.
Board Chair Cindy Anderson voted for the superintendent’s proposal, and said that the board in 2007 did not look into the finer details of waiting decades to fill all the custodial positions through attrition.
“There really was no plan. I mean, there was a general plan, but I don’t think anyone presented to the board how long this would take,” Anderson said. “Which is why it didn’t translate well over time , because there really wasn’t something that someone could even find anywhere to pull off the shelf and continue to follow.”
City Councilor John Taylor Chapman said that laying off employees for the sake of efficiency should be handled carefully.
“I think it sends a very bad message to overall staff – not just looking at this and judging it, it comes from experience,” Chapman told the school board. “It blows culture to the wind because of the efficiency focus that is there, and I would suggest to board members before making any extreme changes to the culture of what you have in ACPS, really understand what that is.”
Board Member Meagan Alderton said she would be in favor of restoring the positions, but that she has not been presented with an budgetary option that would leave student achievement untouched.
“From my purview, it either has to be hire all custodians or we go in the other direction, but something has to be done. It has to be done because we can’t keep having these broken systems at ACPS,” she said. “Nobody on this board wants to cut 30 people. I notice that these people are black and brown people, but from a 50,000 foot perspective what I also want to do is I want to create a school system that provides the resources and the supports for our black and brown kids so that if they grow up and they choose to be a custodian they’re doing it by choice, or they choose to be anything they want because they feel like they have options. We have not created a system that is invested in these kids to make them feel like they can be and do whatever it is they want to be in life.”
The impacted custodians are Hispanic, African American, multi-racial and Asian, according to ACPS. They would also be required to undergo a background check with the chosen contractor prior to starting their new job.
City Manager Mark Jinks has asked Hutchings to send along resumes for potential jobs with the city government.
“We’ve contracted out nearly all our custodial decades ago, but we still have some particular places where we have custodial positions,” Jinks said. “We also have other blue collar positions that these 30 individuals may qualify for, so we’re wide open to working and seeing what we can do.”
City Councilor Canek Aguirre worked for three years at George Washington Middle School as a counselor for Hispanic parents and school administrators. He said that the custodians are a key component to making schools run.
“I worked with a lot of these folks when I was with in the school system. They’re some of the hardest working folks there and a lot of times they don’t get paid attention to,” Aguirre said. “We can’t lose track of the individuals that are working there now, because, yes, we could have this in writing with the RFP [request for proposals] that they are going to hire 100 percent of the people, but that’s not to say once they become employees that they won’t be fired a day later, a month later.”
Board Member Michelle Rief voted against the superintendent’s proposal, and questioned the efficiency of the move. She said that the school system should look into hiring contractors that manage both custodians and the attrition process.
“Student achievement really does start with clean and safe buildings,” Rief said. “I would certainly like to take a second closer look at our budget and I would love it if you would do the same on the council side and see if we can’t find the money to actually stick with the plan of attrition.”
Board Member Chris Suarez, who voted for the superintendent’s plan, said that he has struggled with the issue, and suggested that ACPS try an attrition plan since it will already be employing 14 veteran custodians.
“We’re going to have a hybrid, somewhat inefficient system no matter what,” Suarez said. “And so I go back to whether we can do better by these 30 employees with a real attrition plan that could incorporate some of these things that we’re already doing.”
Board Member Margaret Lorber said she made her vote in favor of the budget with a heavy heart, but that she would keep the employees if the money was found.
“In my case, if the $500,000 fell out of the air, in an instant I would vote in favor of keeping the custodians,” she said.
In a board memo dated Feb. 27, 2007, then-Superintendent Rebecca Perry outlined the attrition plan to the board due to the massive expansion of T.C. Williams High School. The renovated school was 100,000 square feet bigger, and a cost analysis determined it would be more economical to outsource the custodians rather than add ACPS staff.
Ronnie Campbell served on the board for 12-and-a-half years and remembers the school board decision.
“The unanimous agreement between the board and staff was that the only way we were going to go to contracting custodial services, which at the time was strictly for T.C. Williams High School, was if it was done through attrition. We actually voted on the proposal, which was included in the school board’s FY’08 operating budget,” Campbell said. “There is still time for the school board to correct this, whether it’s through finding other deletes in the budget, or simply having a majority request additional funding from city council. City council may not be able to add additional funding for a particular line item, however, I feel it would be a grave mistake for the school board or superintendent to recommend these additional funds be used for anything other than retaining our current custodial staff.”
The school board will have its next meeting on March 21 at 6 p.m.