Joe Henderson: More than dollars and cents involved in outsourcing school custodians

Hillsborough schools have gone down the subcontracting road before, most recently with substitute teachers.
Published March 13
Updated March 14

Hillsborough County public school custodians were notified recently that their jobs are in jeopardy because the district no longer can afford them. Oh, that’s not what the letter from Deputy Superintendent for Operations Chris Farkas said exactly, but it is what he meant.

Farkas said the district is “looking into the benefits of subcontracting our custodial services.” Officials will solicit bids from private companies to do the job of keeping schools clean.

What possibly could go wrong here?

Before we get into that, something must be acknowledged. School budgets are strained thanks to the whims of charter-loving Tallahassee bureaucrats. In the name of education reform and choice, legislators have steadily redirected money that used to go to public schools into the coffers of private charters and voucher programs.

This is happening while Hillsborough’s population is growing and the need to build more schools never seems to end. So, if officials squeeze nickels until they scream, I get it.

But outsourcing these services could cause many more problems than it solves.

The district spends about $38 million annually on its custodial staff. That’s about 1.25 percent of the $3 billion overall budget. Farkas noted in his letter to the custodial staff that “subcontracting our custodial services may save millions of dollars.”

Key words there: may save.

Put another way: may not save.

If what custodians are paid now chews up a little more than 1 percent of the budget, what kind of savings would the district really expect to get if it makes this move?

The district has gone down this subcontracting road before, most recently with substitute teachers. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Kelly Services, which won that contract, had sent teachers into classrooms who fell asleep on the job, berated or struck students, and made inappropriate and sometimes vulgar comments.

Sub teachers parachute in for a day or two and can bounce from school to school. It’s a paycheck, not an allegiance.

It’s different with custodians.

They are at a school every day. They are another set of eyes and ears that can stop a problem before it escalates out of control. They are part of the family. They feel more attachment to a school than someone sent in from the outside to do a gig.

As Farkas acknowledged in his letter, “We appreciate the work you do to create a great place where our students can learn and feel safe.”

The Times reported that the average salary for the more than 1,500 custodial workers is about $24,000. That is down, by the way, from more than 1,700 employees a couple of years ago as the district eliminated jobs to cut costs.

There is no way yet to gauge what they would make under a new system, but you can bet that in many cases — particularly for longtime employees — it would be a lot less.

There also is a good chance the cleaning burden would fall on teachers when the outsourced worker fails to show or doesn’t do a thorough job. Maybe teachers can squeeze that in between mandatory conferences, grading papers, making lesson plans, and teaching multiple classes per day.

Privatizing also can lead to a loss of accountability, since the custodian would be an employee of the staffing agency and not the school district.

The idea of outsourcing these jobs is not new. Districts across the country have tried it and many have reported issues like the ones Hillsborough could experience.

This is only a proposal for now and the school board has the final say. As Farkas noted, only after the district receives bids will it know “whether making changes to our custodial operations makes sense.”

There is more at stake here than just the bottom line, though. Not everything can be measured by a calculator and spreadsheet. Hillsborough would be wise to keep that in mind.

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