TAMPA - It will be months, and probably longer, before Hillsborough County’s school custodians know if their union jobs are safe.
Speaking with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he is awaiting an in-house study on how to change the way roughly 1,500 custodians do their jobs to a centralized model, as an efficiency consultant recommended. The custodians, who earn an average of $24,000, now report to their principals.
Eakins said he does not expect the study to be wrapped up until late summer. After that, district leaders will consider centralization, along with keeping things as they are or hiring an outside cleaning service. Bids from cleaning services - which district leaders say they sought to get an idea on how much privatization would cost - are due on Tuesday.
“That gives the [School] Board all of the information - what does an outsourcing look like, what does centralization look like,” Eakins said. “I think that allows us, at that point in time, to have that comparison.”
A letter from Deputy Superintendent Chris Farkas went out in April to the custodians and school principals, outlining these options. It began with the sentence: “I want you to know that we are listening.”
Custodians, who are represented by the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, have been picketing at school board meetings along with supporters from the teachers’ union. The fear is that they will lose job protection and benefits if a private firm takes over. District leaders have assured the workers that, based on industry trends, about 80 percent will be offered jobs if the private firms come in. Others might qualify for different positions in the district.
Eakins acknowledged there is much to consider, and the questions are not easily answered in dollar figures. In addition to their cleaning jobs, custodians form relationships with teachers, principals and children. Supporters say they are also part of a school’s security system.
“As a principal, I had my own custodial staff and I understand exactly where principals and teachers come from when they talk about that type of service and dedication,” Eakins said.
“All those things are not lost on me. The quality of service, customer service and savings all have to look and feel right for this organization.”
If there is a change as drastic as privatization, Eakins said, he would not expect it to take effect for a year or longer. “No matter what model is selected, you’d have to take a year to know how you’re shifting the way things are,” he said.