Durham County

Is moving schools’ custodial services in-house worth $800K more? Custodians think so.

Watch: Durham Public Schools custodians want to be DPS employees

Denise Wiggins works as a custodian for a Durham Public Schools’ contractor. She wants to become a DPS employee to receive better pay and benefits.
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Denise Wiggins works as a custodian for a Durham Public Schools’ contractor. She wants to become a DPS employee to receive better pay and benefits.

George Conrad, a custodian at Hillside New Tech High School, says the threat of losing his job keeps him awake nights.

He, like a growing number of custodians, believe they would have more job security and better benefits if employed by the Durham Public Schools instead of the contractors to whom DPS pays $7 million a year to clean its schools.

“All I want to do is to be comfortable and go home with a secure job and come to work and make the schools the best that we can,” Conrad said. “I’m doing my part. I missed one day in eight years without getting sick, working in the snow, cleaning up feces. What more can I give to convince ya’ll to bring this in-house?”

Conrad made his comments during a school board work session this week at which the DPS Board of Education received a report from the DPS administration that showed moving the district’s custodial services in-house would cost an additional $800,000 a year.

He also spoke to The Herald-Sun in November about not having holidays off and the expense to workers to be covered by health care plans offered by contractors, as opposed to much lower contributions to health-care costs paid by school district workers.

Most custodial services are currently contracted out to SSC Service Solutions and its subcontractor, Premiere. Service Solutions holds the $7 million a year cleaning contract, which is the district’s largest. DPS is now considering bids for the contract from two vendors, once of which is Service Solutions.

District officials have said principals requested in mid-2000 that custodial services be outsourced so that they would be relieved of the responsibility of hiring and managing custodial workers and ordering and purchasing cleaning equipment and supplies.

Some 33 full-time custodians and two part-timers remain on the DPS payroll. The district’s other 294 full-time and part-time custodians either work for Service Solutions or Premiere.

The DPS administration recommended to the school board Thursday that DPS create an in-house custodial pilot program in two elementary schools and one middle school with current DPS employees.

“We could use those employees to create a model so we can truly measure some of the advantages and disadvantages of the contractual versus in-house,” said Aaron Beaulieu, the district’s chief operating officer.

He said DPS would also work with whatever company is awarded the custodial contract to improve wages and working conditions for custodians and create a dual-employment program that would allow some custodians to also drive school buses and work in school cafeterias so that they would have full-time employment.

District officials said the additional $800,000 to bring custodial services in house would be driven by employee benefits and higher wages than many custodians earn from the contractors. The $800,000 assumes a $15 hourly wage for full-timers and $10 hourly wage for part-timers.

The additional $800,000 cost estimate was immediately challenged Thursday by one schools employee who has lobbied DPS for more than a year to move custodial services in-house.

Brian Callaway, the district’s coordinator of energy and sustainability who has frequently spoken at school board meetings in favor of moving custodial services in-house, argued that the cost would be actually $80,000 less than the district currently spends.

Callaway said the district’s assessment is not an apples-to-apples comparison between what it would cost DPS to manage custodial services versus what it would pay the contractor.

He said DPS errs, for example, when it states that the contractor pays part-time custodians $9 an hour because people tell him most part-time custodians are paid $8 an hour.

Beaulieu said DPS doesn’t currently have “full disclosure” of wages SSC Services Solutions pay its custodians, but have been told that the average wage for part-timers is $8.50 an hour.

Callaway also complained that DPS “arbitrarily” set $10 an hour as the amount the district would pay part-timers if they became DPS employees.

The $2 difference in hourly wages, Callaway said, accounts for $400,000 of the $800,000 DPS contends it would cost to move the services in-house.

In addition, Callaway said the contractor only employs part-time custodians for 43 weeks each year but DPS’ assessment calls for them to be paid for 50 weeks, the same as full-time custodians. He said that increased the cost of making custodians DPS employees $225,000.

The differences in the costs of benefit packages, with custodians paying a smaller contribution for their health insurance coverage, would also result in savings of about $225,000, Callaway said.

But at its core, Callaway said the decision whether to move custodial services in-house speaks directly to the “Durham values” of which board members so often speak.

“This discussion is the essence of sustainability and it is the essence of equity,” Callaway said. “This is the tangible application of equity and sustainability, which I believe are principles this community values and aspires to. We believe it’s part of our DNA in this community. Are you going to take the benefits and stability of full-time employment away from the poorest of your workers and give it to a corporation in the form of profit? It’s a transfer here.”

Deborrah Bailey, a custodian employed by Service Solutions who works at DPS’ Bacon Street facility, said the values held by DPS and its contractors have begun to conflict.

“We all are working to provide for our families, and provide them a decent lifestyle,” Bailey told school board members. “Where does their [contractors] profit come from? It comes from the fruits of the custodian’s labor because they don’t have a product. We are a part of your village. What we are asking is that you make your investment in the employees.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645