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Custodians stave off outside firm

Public school maintenance and custodial workers told the School Board this week that they have plenty of ideas on how to save the district money, if only someone would listen to them.

More than two dozen school workers waited for several hours Tuesday to tell the board why they oppose a plan to allow a private company to manage part of the schools' general services.

They argued that some problems in the department have resulted from the district's facilities growing over the years but their numbers staying the same. They also said they didn't want to work for an employer who was not part of the district.

"We work hard, so let us do our job," said one worker. "We're made to feel like we're nobody."

"If we start it this way, I think we're going to privatize everything," said another.

"You're not alone in that concern," said board member Sheila Whitelaw.

After lengthy debate, the board decided not to seek proposals from companies to manage custodial, maintenance and warehouse functions in the school district.

Instead, the board agreed to fill a supervisor's position to oversee the district's custodians. Currently there is no county-level manager who oversees the custodial functions, and the head custodians report to school principals.

Board Chairwoman Janet Herndon and Whitelaw voted against creating the new job, saying they preferred to create new positions as part of the overall budget process and not as isolated items.

A study done by the Department of Education this year found numerous problems in the custodial operation. The report advised possibly appointing someone to oversee the overall custodial tasks _ either by hiring or contracting out the job.

After talking to some private companies that do such management work, school officials determined that the district could save as much as a half a million dollars a year by having an experienced private firm manage the operations.

"I don't really understand the savings aspect of it since you have to pay" the company, said Vince Treacy, president of the Citrus teachers union. "If they can save money, then certainly we can do the same thing."

Herm Sims, executive director of management services, told the board that the problem with the custodial department was similar to one in the school food service department several years ago. There was no district-level administrator to oversee food service, and the operation lost about $300,000 each year.

Once an administrator was appointed and all the schools cut costs, the program began to break even. An increase in lunch prices hasn't been necessary for the past five years, Sims said.

Board member Mark Stone said he had been impressed with what he heard from one of the companies that could offer the private service. But he also had been talking to school district employees and said their interest and enthusiasm was much more impressive to him.

That kind of movement from within "is much more powerful than anything that can come in from outside," Stone said. By having the school employees participate in making the system more efficient, "it gives people a vested interest in what they're doing."