TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District surveyed its employees to find out what they thought about custodial services.
As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for.
The responses were mostly about dirty bathrooms and unswept floors, balanced out by declarations that custodians are part of the school family, underpaid and overworked, and far better than the alternative — outsourcing to private cleaning firms.
But sprinkled throughout those comments were dozens taking issue with the fact that most custodians speak Spanish instead of English.
One made the point in just two words; “English please.”
Others in the group — of which 83 percent were teachers or administrators — suggested the district make English speaking ability a requirement for the job, that it teach the custodians how to speak English, or both.
One said the language barrier results in “chaos.” Another said it is unsafe, as custodians do not understand instructions given during a school lock down.
The survey, answered by more than 4,000 employees in May, was anonymous. So it’s impossible to know who wrote that “I would be fired” for not being able to communicate after years on the job, or who declared: “English should be a mandatory requirement for hiring! This is America.”
The remarks did not go unnoticed by Steve Cona, the School Board member who opened up the whole issue when he suggested in January that the district consider outsourcing custodial services.
“I’m half Cuban,” Cona said in an interview after the survey. “And, no, I didn’t like seeing that.”
Iran Alicea, president of the union that represents more than 1,200 custodians, and is of Puerto Rican heritage, said, “Whoa!” when he heard about the comments.
“That’s never, ever a correct thing to say," he said. “I have to think, if you felt that way about an employee that’s doing something for you, how do you feel about Hispanic children that you have in your classroom?”
Hispanic students — including many who are bilingual — are the largest demographic group in the district, accounting for 37 percent of enrollment last year. According to a recent report, 13 percent of principals and teachers are Hispanic, and 8 percent of assistant principals.
The blue-collar workforce has a much higher percentage of Hispanic employees, Alicea said, including more than 80 percent in the custodial ranks. Custodians earn an average of $24,000 a year, and many are immigrants.
“That’s who is applying for these jobs,” he said. He estimated that for at least 70 percent, communication is much easier in Spanish than in English. The head custodians often are fully bilingual and can translate, he said.
Digs at Spanish-speaking workers were a small percentage of the survey comments, which dealt primarily with either the lack of cleanliness at schools or the importance of having a stable, familiar workforce.
And a few were sympathetic. One described working with a principal who can speak Spanish. But “she refuses to speak with any of the custodial staff in any language but English.” Another commended Spanish-speaking custodians for making sure students with limited English ability feel secure and welcome at school.
Some teachers, reacting to the ongoing debate about privatization, took issue with the way the survey was constructed. The questions asked about the way custodial work is managed, more than issues some teachers found important, such as the value many place on having familiar adults around the children. There were allegations that the survey was rigged to get a desired result.
Many respondents commented about inadequate equipment and supplies — for example, vacuum cleaners that cannot be used to clean the kind of carpet in a particular classroom, or a lack of soap, toilet tissue and paper towels. In a separate survey given to the custodians, 29 percent said one of their biggest issues was compensation, and 25 percent called for better cleaning equipment.
The survey also showed some educators think the district’s 2014 decision to outsource substitute teaching was a big mistake. They complained about Kelly Educational Staffing, the contractor, in their warnings against bringing in a private cleaning company.
District leaders have a third alternative: Managing custodial workers in a centralized model, as an efficiency audit recommended, instead of having them report to the school principals.
Cona, a first-time board member now running for re-election, has caught considerable backlash for his idea from the blue-collar union, and from the much larger teacher’s union. That situation worsened when, at a recent board meeting, he commented on the high cost of school custodial services, based on figures he received from Gretchen Saunders, the district’s chief business officer. Saunders had mistakenly included other departments, including security, in those figures. She apologized publicly for the error.
But, Cona said last week, “we’re still paying a lot regardless of what the number is.” He remains committed to improving not just custodial services, but other departments as well. He said the survey confirmed what he sees as a lack of consistency and standards.
“I’ve been to every school my district," said Cona, who is elected in Northwest Hillsborough and Town 'N Country. “There are some that look like the Taj Mahal. And there are some where you wonder, are there even custodians at this school? It’s clear that we have done a poor job of leading that department.”
As for the use of spoken Spanish, he said, "we should be able to communicate.” But, responding to the “this is America” comment, he said, “this is America. And we are a melting pot of cultures.”