By Steven Hoffman
The vote was unanimous but hardly easy.
The Avon Grove School Board unanimously voted last week to furlough 26 members of the district's custodial staff, the final step in a process to contract out the custodial services. Avon Grove is joining a growing list of local school districts that are partnering with the Chester County Intermediate Unit for facilities management and custodial operations, and is expected to see about $700,000 in savings annually as a result.
The furloughs are effective at the close of business on June 30.
Dozens of people crowded into school board meeting on May 22, many of whom expressed their concerns about the district's decision to furlough the custodial staff. Before they had their say, school board president Brian Gaerity explained the difficult—but in the board's view necessary—decision.
“The board and the administration have been working on the 2014-15 budget since the beginning of the year,” Gaerity explained. “Our overarching goals for the budget are to ensure adequate resources to improve student achievement, ensure our facilities are secure and in good working order, and control costs without compromising quality or integrity. One of our guiding principles has been to put as much 'on the table' as possible so that we can see all the options available to us. Subcontracting custodial services is one option we have considered and are acting upon.”
Gaerity noted that the district will be saving $700,000 annually by contracting out the services. All the custodial staff members will be offered employment with the company that is taking over the custodial operations.
Approximately a dozen people in the large crowd spoke in favor of keeping the custodial operations in-house and protecting the jobs of longtime employees.
Nancy Ziglar, a New London Township resident said that the men and women who comprise the custodial staff are loyal employees and many of them live locally and pay taxes to the school district.
“Many of these men and women have worked 15 or 25 years or more,” she said. “Many are at an age where finding employment will be very difficult, especially in today's market. Some have families to support.”
Another resident said that while the furloughed custodial staff may get job offers with the company the district is contracting with, those jobs will come with smaller salaries and fewer benefits.
A woman in the audience said that the custodial staff helps students and plays a part in creating a safe and welcoming environment for students.
A teachers' aide in the district talked about how the custodians were willing to help out in any way possible.
“The custodians treat everyone equal,” she said. “They were right there for anything that is needed.”
Bobby Fulton, a custodian for 28 years, said that the district will be losing good employees by making the decision to contract out the positions.
“We work hard and we love the children,” he said. “You can’t buy love.”
Fulton thanked the people who showed up at the meeting for their support.
At the conclusion of the public comment, the board continued with the agenda, which included the vote on eliminating the job classifications and furloughing the custodial staff. Before the vote was taken, Gaerity explained his position on the issue, and addressed some of the concerns that had been raised by audience members.
“I have read all the letters and emails sent to me regarding custodial services and have shared these messages with other members of the board,” he said. “I have listened to everyone who spoke on behalf of the custodians tonight. I have seriously considered the arguments, which can be put into three general buckets: One, that subcontractors would provide inferior service simply because they aren't district employees; two, that our kids would be put at risk because non-district personnel will be in the schools; and three, that we can find other ways to save money, or that the savings don't justify the elimination of jobs.
“For me, the first two arguments are less of a concern,” Gaerity continued. “Today, most of our students ride in buses owned by, driven by and serviced by for-profit companies and their employees. In other words, our transportation system is completely subcontracted. To imply that these bus drivers are unprofessional or would deliberately under-perform or put our children at risk is simply unfair and incorrect. I expect the same high levels of service, commitment, and safety from the sub-contracted custodians.”
Gaerity continued: “The projected savings by subcontracting custodial services is estimated to be $700,000 per year, which is equivalent to a 1.4 percent tax increase. That's a lot of money. Does it justify the elimination of jobs? In my mind, it does. Because those savings will help pay for greatly needed programs and personnel that will directly help our students.
“As a board, we have an obligation to consider all options that we believe will increase student achievement, control costs, or both. We would be imprudent to do otherwise. Some of our decisions will be easy, and some will be very difficult. But all decisions involve trade-offs. What don't we fund when we fund something else. Our revenues are not keeping pace with expenses. We have to control costs as much as possible, without losing quality. That's always a balance and there will always be some risk.
“I believe the decision to subcontract is best for the district as a whole, and therefore I will vote for this motion.”
The board voted unanimously in favor of the motion.
While the decision was a difficult one, board members were also convinced that it was the necessary one at this time.
Gaerity said that the unanimous support for the decision “means that nine board members have seen the value in this action. We are charged with making decisions that are in the best interest of the entire district.”
Custodial staff members were understandably upset following the meeting.
Michael Martin shared that he has been working extra hard to get the building back in shape since being named as the head custodian at the Penn London Elementary School. Martin has been employed with the district for 12 years.
“It's sad for us,” added Lori Hammer, a 20-year employee. “I put a lot of hard work and dedication into this.”