Education

Durham Public Schools contract for custodial services raises concerns

Deborrah Bailey, (left) a custodian employed SSC Service Solution and Denise Wiggins, a custodial supervisor at Hillside High School employed by Premiere, a subcontractor of SSC Service Solutions, celebrate the decision by the Durham school board Thursday, March 8, to move the district's custodial services in-house.
Deborrah Bailey, (left) a custodian employed SSC Service Solution and Denise Wiggins, a custodial supervisor at Hillside High School employed by Premiere, a subcontractor of SSC Service Solutions, celebrate the decision by the Durham school board Thursday, March 8, to move the district's custodial services in-house.

A new, six month contract that calls for Durham Public Schools to pay SSC Service Solutions a $10,000 a month "summer cleaning premium" raised questions at Thursday's school board meeting.

The premium, for cleaning supplies, would be paid June-August as part of a $3.5 million contract the board has been asked to approve to keep SSC Services Solution on the job while DPS creates an in-house custodial program by December.

But one DPS employee, who helped to organize custodians' push to become DPS employees, wondered why the district would pay SSC Service Solutions a "summer cleaning premium" over the months the firm has typically laid off custodians, leaving some schools to fend for themselves.

"During the summer they have a history of laying off their employees," said Brian Callaway, the school district's coordinator of energy and sustainability who has helped custodians in their effort to become DPS employees. "We have cases where principals are left moving furniture around."

Callaway said he's also encountered custodians who were in tears because they didn't have enough help to clean up after a summer camp session.

"And I've spoken to camp leaders who have had to sweep out their own classrooms because custodial service is not provided," Callaway said, noting that the new contract with the summer premium doesn't require SSC Services Solutions to strip and wax floors this summer.

"Less work, more pay is disturbing," Callaway said.

The Durham school board decided last month to end a 13-year relationship with SSC Service Solutions, which was paid $7 million this year to provide custodial services and to manage the district’s cleaning program. The contract is the largest awarded by the district.

Custodians complained that SSC Service Solutions and its subcontractor Premiere paid sub-par wages and did not provide paid sick time, paid leave or paid holidays.

SSC Service Solutions also lost a multi-million dollar contract with the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools after that district fired the firm amid concerns about it violating personnel laws, over-billing the school district and failing to meet performance expectations.

Aaron Beaulieu, the school district's chief finance officer, said the contract with SSC Service Solutions represents the best compromise given that DPS is ending its relationship with the firm and the bulk of its work, preparing schools for students and staff to return, occurs over the summer.

"So, what we've proposed in here, the $10,000 for supplies, is a tradeoff versus the contract going up on a monthly basis," Beaulieu said, noting that the contract call for the district to pay Service Solutions $580,000 per month.

He added that he believes SSC Services Solutions is trying to do "right by the district" in the wake of losing the $7 million a year contract with DPS.

"That may be up for debate with a lot of individuals, but they are trying to be a good partner even though we have said we are not renewing this contract," Beaulieu said.

The school board took no action on the contract Thursday. The board is expected to take a vote when it meets for its regular business meeting April 26.

Some board members had questions about the pay for part-time custodians, which calls for them to receive their current pay levels, with $8.50 being the minimum pay. Full-time workers would receive at least $15 an hour.

"So, they're asking for an extra $10,000 a month and are still paying the people $8 an hour?" asked board member Minnie Forte-Brown. "Something's wrong with that picture."

School board Chairman Mike Lee asked custodians to be patient, because better wages and benefits are coming.

"This is part of the process of getting what we want," Lee said. "In order to make it successful in the way that we have all pictured and talked about, we have to get the right structure in place so we don't fail."

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645
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