Public schools ponder cost-benefit angle of private vs. public custodial care going forward

Theo Bishop, a veteran custodian who has worked at Hillandale Elementary School for more than 20 years, addresses the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.
Theo Bishop, a veteran custodian who has worked at Hillandale Elementary School for more than 20 years, addresses the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

Theo Bishop has been part of the custodial crew at Hillandale Elementary School for more than 20 years.

He’s seen the custodial services at Durham Public Schools go from an in-house operation to one that is a hybrid with most services outsourced through Service Solutions, the company contracted to clean DPS schools.

Bishop told the Durham Public Schools Board of Education on Thursday, June 15, that DPS was better off when all custodians were employed by the school district.

“We’re really hoping that we can go back to in-house because the custodial contract is not really working like it’s supposed to,” Bishop said. “Over the years that I’ve been there, I’ve seen it deteriorate. ...”

Bishop’s remarks touched on an ongoing debate in DPS about whether the school district is better off with in-house custodians or outsourcing the work to a private company.

The matter found its way to the forefront this week when the school board was asked to extend the Service Solutions Contract until December while DPS figures out the best course for cleaning schools.

The board unanimously approved the contract extension — the contract was set to expire June 30 — to ensure custodial services are in place before year-round schools reopen July 17.

The contract is worth nearly $7 million a year and is one of the largest independent contracts awarded by the school district.

DPS staffers were asked to begin to look at whether in-house or outsourced custodial services will serve DPS best moving forward.

The school district has already received a report from Core Management Services, a consultant it paid to provide an independent assessment of its custodial program.

The report explored the pros and cons or outsourcing the work, in-house custodial services and the mixed model currently used by DPS.

The consultants found that the district could save up to $2.3 million a year if it outsourced all custodial services and $75,000 to $200,000 a year if it stayed with the mixed program model and made changes such as creating some nine-month positions for custodians who would only work when school is in session.

The consultants also said DPS could mitigate the increased costs of going to an all in-house model by using some part-time workers, creating nine-month positions and using roving teams of custodians to care for floors in multiple schools.

Question is cost vs. reward

Where school leaders stand in the debate about whether to continue to outsource custodial services depends largely on whether they believe its more important that DPS saves money or more important to reward custodians with the better pay and benefits DPS can provide.

“If the savings to the district is coming essentially from reducing the benefits for employees, I’m troubled by that,” said school board member Steve Unruhe.

DPS’ labor burden — payroll taxes, retirement and pension costs, health care and life and disability insurance — is about 30 percent compared to 18 percent for the typical outsourced labor provider’s burden.

Another point of consideration is whether schools are viewed as being cleaner under Service Solutions than when the schools employed its own custodial staff.

Kenneth Barnes, the school district’s executive director of maintenance services, said the schools are decidedly cleaner now, contradicting Bishop’s remark that the level of service has worsened under outsourcing.

“Our schools are much, much cleaner now than when we had in-house services many years ago,” Barnes said.

A former principal and longtime DPS veteran administrator, Barnes said that many years ago principals asked to have the custodial services outsourced so that principals and assistant principals could focus on educating children.

When custodial services were in-house, principals and assistant principals were responsible for hiring and supervising custodial crews for their schools.

“The principals went to the superintendent and asked that to be taken off their plates,” Barnes said.

He said the downside to having custodial services in-house is that schools are given a set dollar amount for supplies and if they run out before the end of the school year, principals have to find money to restock.

“We don’t ever run out of supplies with the contractor because they are required to keep our schools stocked with paper towels, toilet paper and those sorts of things, even though we get complaints sometime that it’s missing,” Barnes said.

He also said the district does not have to buy janitorial equipment such as buffers and vacuum cleaners under the current outsourced model.

Brian Callaway, the school district’s coordinator of energy and sustainability, has been vocal about bringing the district’s custodial services back in-house.

Callaway expressed disappointment at the consultant’s report, contending it does not fairly compare the cost of in-house custodial services to outsourced services.

“The report only compares the cost of labor,” Callaway said. “There are several other components to a custodial program. You don’t get a full apples-to-apples comparison.”

He explained that the consultant’s report looks at in-house workers only being full time but looks at outsourced workers as a mix of full-time and part-time employees.

Callaway said if all in-house workers and all outsourced workers were all full time, the difference in cost would be much smaller.

“The comparison comes down from $9.18 million for in-house to $7.89 million for outsourcing and if you factor in the most glaring omission from the report which is profit margin we’re very close to being the same cost,” Callaway said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645