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Custodian or Cleaning Service?

March 25, 2010

cus-to-di-an [kuh-stoh-dee-uhn]
-noun
1. a person who has custody; keeper; guardian
2. a person entrusted with guarding or maintaining a property; janitor.

This past Tuesday, under cover of a discussion of the budget for 2011, the Metro Nashville School Board made a major decision of policy related to the care and operation of our schools. This decision, which affects schools at all levels, was made with minimal community input. This decision changes the way schools have operated for many years, and in spite of the far reaching implications of the decision, the school board limited public comment to a single meeting with arcane procedures for being recognized. There was little attempt to get community buy-in; instead the traditional Tennessee politician’s cry that there isn’t enough money was trotted out to justify this significant change as necessary and unavoidable.

I speak of course of the decision to dismiss all publicly hired school custodians and replace them with private independent contractors. The decision has been couched by Dr. Register and those supporting the decision as simply one of economics. There isn’t enough money, and something has to be cut. I agree that cuts to instruction make little sense in a system in and out of the No Child Left Behind corrective action status. And yet, I find myself a bit shaken that the decision to move from publicly accountable staff to a independent contractors could be made so quickly (in just a few weeks) and with as little public comment as was allowed, for the implications of the decision go far beyond simple economics. This is ultimately a decision to transition schools from having true custodians to hiring a cleaning service, with implications for the ongoing maintenance and operation of our school buildings.

The danger in this conversation is that it can quickly fall into concern for those losing their jobs, a concern that is very understandable and valid, but is completely disregarded and seen as worthless in a world in which “people” are seen as “human resources” to be used and discarded as need be. Certainly, I hate to see people lose their jobs, especially since it is more likely than not that their ability to receive a living wage is diminished by the move to privatization. Yes, these folks are first in line for the jobs with the contractors, but at a much diminished pay scale, and more importantly, extremely diminished benefits. However, that concern for the lives of these loyal employees ceases to be an issue as the financial pressures mount. Based in our current philosophy of governance (fodder for a later blog post) something has to be cut, and we’re running out of options.

However in focusing on individual loss and the financial bottom line, we miss a more important conversation regarding the difference between having publicly accountable custodians, men and women whose responsibilities go far beyond cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash. When I am visiting my daughter’s schools, how often have I heard a call go out for Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones, the custodian, who is called upon to deal with the building crisis of the moment. These are people who maintain custody of our school buildings, who function both as caretakers and guardians of these resources in which we entrust our children. These are the folks that are called when an outside group rents the building, and ensure that the school is restored to proper condition before the start of classes each Monday. These persons are integrated members of the learning team, with a specific role to play which enhances the ability of the classroom teachers to teach, and students to learn.

What we will be doing is replacing these “custodians” with a cleaning service. Their job will be to ensure that the school is clean. That’s it. Nothing more, and nothing less. I am sure they will do an effective job at this task, but they won’t be present in the same way as a custodian, nor will they have the same personal investment in the care and upkeep of the property. Sure, they will be able to do the job cheaper, but that is because the scope of what we are asking them to do is much less than what we ask of our current publicly hired staff.

Of course, the argument is regularly made that the benefits requirements of Metro Government hamper the ability of administrators to be “competitive” with the packages found in commercial businesses. My normal tendency is to question why government needs to be competitive with industry for it has a distinctly different function and purpose, but I recognize that many feel that government is inefficient and that taxpayers need to get more bang for their buck. What is interesting to me is that very few folks go to work for city government thinking that they are going to get rich off the deal. Most of them know that the salaries are far from competitive with the private sector. Traditionally one of the trade-offs for receiving less pay was the security that came with the enhanced benefits packages. It was an unofficial contract that ruled government for years. Today, it may be time to change the contract, but not without lots of discussion about the new expectations and realities. It certainly requires more than a three week period and a single public meeting.

There are no great answers here. Restoring the custodians creates financial pressure that will lead to cuts in instructional resource elsewhere. Losing the custodians represents a major change in school operational policy, and probably a loss for teachers and students along the way.

Ultimately, it’s time for someone to stand up and challenge the prevailing philosophy that is killing our state — a philosophy that says that raising revenues is impossible, a philosophy that says that taxpayers aren’t willing to pay for more effective services, a philosophy that refuses to enter into a communal conversation about expectations and realities, calling people to wake up and recognize that quality anything isn’t cheap, and that we may indeed have to pay our way if we want to see good things.

The problem with the school board’s decision is the same problem that affects all of city and state government in Tennessee — it is driven more by fear than any desire to move in a particular direction. And as we all know, fearful decision can kill us if we aren’t careful.


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 10:25 pm

    Great post.

  2. Mrs. Jones permalink
    April 29, 2010 7:38 pm

    Very well put. I could not have said it better myself. We are in another state, but my husband is one of those loyal custodians, more than 20+ years, just let go from a public school and this is happening all over the U.S. He has not yet been able to find a job, only part time here and there. I find outsourcing to be cold and cruel to the faithful, hard workers that are carelessly tossed out and replaced by a corporation.

  3. Randy permalink
    January 21, 2011 4:06 am

    Hi Mrs. Jones.
    I’m sorry to hear about your husband losing his job. I was laid off from a local government position as a custodian for a city hall. I was there 10 years. It was due to “budget cuts” our department was told. My whole dept. was laid off. They went with a commercial cleaning service. I recently heard from my supervisor that still visits our job to talk with friends he knows there that the city hall is on their 2nd cleaning service. I guess the first one didn’t last too long. So, so much for some cleaning services. I hope all gets better for you guys there. Sincerely, Randy

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