SCARBOROUGH – Scarborough school officials are looking more closely at a plan to outsource 28 custodial jobs as a way to trim the school budget.

Union officials, who argue the plan raises safety and quality concerns, say the idea resurfaced suddenly this month after negotiations on a new contract stalled.

“We were about ready to settle a contract,” said Crystal Goodrich, president of the Scarborough Education Association, on Monday. “We thought we were at our last meeting for that. Everything was going great to that point. Negotiations had gone smoothly. We had already agreed on benefits. Then, the school board presented us with these outsourcing bids.

“They basically said, ‘We would like you to figure out how you can cut costs,’” said Goodrich. “That was it. That was pretty much what was presented to us. We were told, ‘Look at this and figure out what you are going to propose.”’

Superintendent Dr. George Entwistle III said last week that the opportunity to save more than a quarter-million dollars is too good to pass up, following the expiration of more than $1.2 million in federal subsidies.

“We just need to see where these negotiations with the union end up going,” he said. “If there’s any opportunity for savings that can be used to beef up our language or STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] program, we have to look seriously at those things.”

Next up, says Goodrich, is a “fact-finding” meeting on Sept. 24 to review three quotes submitted for replacing Scarborough’s custodians. That session will feature Goodrich and Maine Education Association Uniserv Director Cheryl Lunde on one side of the table, with Facilities Director Todd Jepson and Assistant Superintendent Jo Ann Sizemore on the other.

“Basically the negotiations have just begun and could take quite a while,” said Goodrich, noting that Scarborough’s school custodians have been working without a contract sine June 30.

Three months before that contract ran out, the school department issued a request-for-proposal for cleaning companies, looking for anyone capable of taking on the 612,631 square feet of space now maintained by an in-house staff, a little more than half of whom are full-time employees.

Three firms – BSC Cleaning and UGL-Unicco, both of South Portland, and Benchmark Cleaning Services of Portland – met a March 26 deadline to submit evidence they can handle the job. By “mid-June,” said Jepson, all three companies submitted bids.

Jepson said the numbers came in between $230,000 and $356,000 less that the $1.1 million now paid in salary and benefits for custodians, who average $14 per hour.

After starting at $13.55 per hour, Scarborough school custodians can, after 24 years, earn a maximum of $16.55 per hour. The benefits package available after the first year of employment includes 80 percent coverage of health insurance premiums for both individual and family plans and 90 percent premium payment for dental, along with life insurance and Maine State Retirement coverage.

The cleaning companies, said Goodrich, offer no benefits and have a starting rate of $9 per hour.

“These are not good jobs,” she said. “A lot of our people have families and they can’t survive on that kind of an income. The pay is ridiculous. You’d probably make more money being unemployed.

“Basically, the public needs to know that they have great custodians who provide a very valuable service,” said Goodrich. “Our buildings are absolutely beautiful and well taken care of.”

Jepson agrees with that sentiment, saying, “This is all about cost. It’s not a question of quality at all. Our people do a very good job.”

Jepson said all three vendors have indicated they will use “about the same number” of people Scarborough employs. The difference in price, he said, is due to lower salaries and no benefits.

“Well, we’re going to get what we pay for,” said Goodrich, citing Biddeford as a district that had poor luck outsourcing cleaning jobs, even as Entwistle points to his old district, Falmouth, as one where the concept has worked.

But Goodrich said there are considerations beyond mere dollars. Low-wage jobs with no benefits are liable to produce a revolving door of employees, she said, leading to safety concerns.

“It’s a huge safety issue,” Goodrich said. “People want to know that their children are going to school with properly screened staff, with proper fingerprinting and security that they feel comfortable with. Some of the teachers are in the buildings late at night and they have told me directly, I don’t want to be here with people I don’t know.”

“I think that in this time, when we are trying to protect every dollar that we can and keep it in the classroom, we would be remiss if we did not look at all aspects of the operation we run to see if there are more creative and/or alternative ways to run those more efficiently,” said Entwistle.

High school custodian Josh Collins said in March that custodians harbor no ill will toward teachers. Instead, it’s administrators who they say are bleeding the budget.

“We’re the lowest earners, we’re the bottom of the totem pole. It’s like going after the little guy just to save a couple of bucks,” he said. “I think a lot of negative feelings right now, honestly, comes from the raises that administrators got last year. It was 7 percent, after we were all told there was no money in the budget. Well, that’s a lot of money at their pay scale.”

Last year, two vacant custodian jobs were cut to save money. This year, another empty slot went unfilled.

“When we lost those positions last year, it was tough, especially at the high school,” said Collins. “We made it work, but it’s hard. People are really being stretched to get everything done and keep the schools looking nice.”

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