June 20, 2012 - By Trevor Keiser
A Lake Orion High School student hugs and cries with her mom who is a custodian. Photo by T. Keiser. (click for larger version)
At the April 12 school board meeting, Custodian Kathy Sandstrom said a "dark cloud of discouragement" remained over AFSCME Union custodial staff. At the June 13 meeting that cloud released a downpour of tears.
The Lake Orion School Board voted unanimous to privatize custodial services and hire D.M. Burr Group starting this fall.
"I think they have made a terrible decision on the backs of people who provided a service for many years," said Custodian Felicia Hicks. "Not only do they provide a service here, but they live here. They vote on the different millages that pass and they've been supportive to the district."
Hicks also called it a tragedy for the custodians to lose their job for "an unknown amount of savings."
"Unfortunately they'll have to see it come to fruition before they actually see the effects of what they've done to the community and to the district," she said. "This is not helping the children at all."
Trustee Melissa Miller said one of the primary responsibilities of the state is providing education to children and she is dismayed by what she perceives is an attack on community based public education by state leaders.
"Last year the state cut $470 per pupil public funding allowance, a reduction of $3.6 million to Lake Orion Community Schools. We will see that same $3.6 million hit us again this year," she said. We cannot move our educational outcomes in a positive direction without adequate funding."
Miller said they are not losing funding because the state has a shortfall in the school aide fund through 1992 act of Proposal A, but "because elected officials used an unintended loophole in the Michigan Constitution to divert almost $500 million to community colleges and state universities."
In addition she said state leaders are using their control of public school funding to force their reform agenda on local school districts, which includes expanded charter schools, virtual online academies, and mandatory school of choice as well as privatization.
"As a community we need to stand up and demand our elected official's value public education and our right to local control over our school districts," added Miller. "We need our state leaders to respect the intent of Proposal A and provide adequate funding for community based public education, while we allow our local school board of education, school administration and staff to work together to improve our fiscal responsibility without compromising our educational outcome."
Trustee Steve Drakos said the subject matter hit home to him personally, because his dad worked a second job as a custodian at Pontiac Northern High School. However, he said, as a Trustee he can't take things to heart, but must make a decision based upon facts.
"The best judges do not take emotions in when they rule, they look at the facts presented," he said. "I was obligated to look at all the facts. I spent many hours reviewing this proposal. I looked at the contracts, I looked at what was submitted to me and with that, I know with good conscious I am doing my best as a human being."
Vice President Birgit McQuiston felt likewise and said it was "the most difficult decision the board has made."
"As an elected official and member of the board of education this has consumed me the past few months. I have spent the time and research. I've listened, I've read everything I've been given, all the proposal, all the RFP's, I've gone to other districts, I've talked to people, I've poured my heart and soul into this, including the intangible benefits we have currently in our situation," McQuiston said. "Indeed my vote supports our vision and mission which is educating our students for the challenges of tomorrow and providing an exemplary education for all learners. I trust our board will make the right decision."
Trustee Connie Meech said it was not her "preference to go down this path" and said she was "overly optimistic" on the budget, hoping they would have enough to make their budget woes go away. Realizing they don't, she is concerned if they don't find a savings somewhere, that soon they'll have to start cutting instructional programs, which she doesn't want to do.
"It has been extraordinarily hard," she said with tear filled eyes. "I just want to thank all the employees and community members."
Secretary Deborah Porter said as a board they have a responsibility to provide the means for the administration to "execute the educating model that is necessary" and they owe it to the taxpayers to maximize the value of their dollar.
However, she said it was a difficult decision because she knew it would be affecting peoples' lives. Having been outsourced herself a couple times and gone on unemployment due to it, she said she understood what it's like.
"It hasn't been easy," she said. "We have had a lot of documentation sifting through our hands and as a group I really do think we will make the best decision."
Treasurer Jim Weidman also said he's been outsourced twice and understands the dilemma as well.
"This is at this point and time in the life of the times of the community and the community school district," he said. "I think it's an unavoidable step the board needs to take."
Custodian Marie McGee said she wanted to thank the board for allowing her to work for Lake Orion Community Schools.
"They've always been fair to me in the past," she said. "I just can't believe they're not being fair to me now."
She's afraid her house will be vacant now, because she won't have the money to make house payments.
"This is the only school board that never spoke to me personally when I went up to talk to them, every last school board before that knew my name, knew my children's name and always treated me with respect," McGee said. "This is an entirely different kind of board and I feel shameful they're still here."
To help lesson the blow, school administrators recommended terminal pay for all unused sick days be paid out to the custodians and enhanced pay rate be given to current employees hired by the contractor, as well as offer healthcare support to all D.M. Burr assigned to Lake Orion Schools.
Superintendent Marian Ginopolis called this the most difficult decision in her career and said the only way to stop these cuts to education is to become more active legislatively by writing letter, making phone calls, and speaking at legislative hearings.
Ginopolis once again emphasized the decision to cut custodians was nothing personal, but only to save educational programs.
"These are wonderful people," she said. "Their professionalism throughout all of this is remarkable."
Though it was a losing battle, Sandstrom was proud of their efforts.
"We fought hard and we told the truth," she said. "There was nothing more we could do."
Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.