Durham school custodians say district officials broke a promise about their jobs

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, a Durham Public Schools custodian with more than 20 years of experience, thinks he was misled.

At a March 8 school board meeting, Bishop and other custodians already on the DPS payroll, contend administrators said they would not have to reapply for their jobs in a move to bring custodial services in house.

But last week, Bishop, a lead custodian with supervisory responsibilities, was told by Ralph France, the district’s new director of custodial services, that he and 17 others in such roles will indeed have to reapply for their positions.

“He [France] dropped a bomb on us,” said Bishop, the head custodian at Hillandale Elementary School. “To us, it’s like he’s trying to push those of us with more than 15 years of experience out.”

Bishop and several other lead custodians plan to attend a school board work session on Thursday to express concern about having to reapply for their positions.

DPS confirmed that the 18 lead custodians employed by DPS, those in supervisory roles, must reapply for their positions. Roughly 12 others who are not supervisors will not have to reapply for their jobs.

“After much discussion and thought about the process for lead custodian staffing, we determined that it would be the most beneficial to the district to have lead custodians re-apply for their positions,” said Arasi Adkins, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “The supervisory aspect of the lead custodian position makes a difference.”

DPS officials said no decision has been made on whether lead custodians who are not selected to continue in those roles will be forced to take a pay cut.

Bishop said custodians were told lead custodians are being asked to reapply for their positions so that principals can help select the people they want to have in those roles.

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Thomas Clayton, the lead custodian at Carrington Middle School, said principals should be able to select lead custodians. But he said the district should not reduce custodians’ pay if they’re forced out of a supervisory job.

“I think it’s just get back because people fought so hard to go in-house,” Clayton said. “It’s dirty business, straight up. They’re just not going to walk all over me like that after 26 years of service”

Brian Callaway, the district’s coordinator of energy and sustainability who helped to organize the push by outsourced custodians to become DPS employees, also thinks DPS administrators opposed to bringing custodial services in house are now taking revenge on workers who fought to become DPS employees.

“This action by a subset of DPS administrators has a strong aroma of retaliation against those custodians who stood up against the company line that called for the district to continue to contract out the custodial program to the detriment of worker wages and benefits,” Callaway said.

Bishop and others point to a video clip of the March 8 board meeting where school board member Minnie Forte-Brown asked whether custodians on DPS’ pay roll would have to reapply for jobs as proof that DPS is now breaking its promise.

“Those who are already Durham Public Schools employees are already clear? Forte-Brown asked.

Aaron Beaulieu, DPS’ chief operating officer, appears to say custodians employed by DPS would not have to reapply.

“Correct,” Beaulieu responded. “The 33 that we currently have.”

Forte-Brown said DPS might not have been entirely clear in March. But she said it’s reasonable to ask lead custodians to reapply for supervisory roles.

The 18 custodians being asked to reapply for their jobs are among the remaining 30 or so custodians who stayed on the school system’s pay after custodial services were outsourced in 2006.

DPS outsourced its custodial services at the request of principals who wanted to be relieved of the responsibility of hiring and managing custodial workers and ordering and purchasing cleaning equipment and supplies.

The vast majority of custodians, more than 200 of them, are employed by SSC Service Solutions and its subcontractor, Premier. SSC Service Solutions will continue as DPS’ custodial contractor until January. That’s when all custodians will become DPS employees.

The school board voted in March to cut ties with SSC Service Solutions after custodians complained that the company paid sub-par wages and did not provide paid sick time, paid leave or paid holidays.

All custodians who worked for the two contractors will have to reapply for their jobs.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645