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Editor's column - Cost of clean schools

February 01, 2012 - Teachers do the teaching, but it's the custodial staff that keeps a school building clean.

Nobody questions this, but members of the Lake Orion School Board are wondering if the work can be done for a better price.

Its plan to issue a request-for-proposal for private custodial services makes sense, given the current economic pressures the district faces. The district has no choice if it wants to comply with the state's latest "best practices" mandates tied to funding.

Consultants hired by the district to determine what benefits it could expect from such a move claim at least $1.1 million dollars could be saved annually by outsourcing the work currently done by 45.5 custodians throughout the district's 13 buildings.

The biggest question focuses on making sure the district secures an accurate, apples-to-apples comparison of all services provided by district employees versus what would be provided by an outside company.

More than once, school board members have insisted how important such a true comparison is when making this decision.

They say they are committed to making sure the RFP is very clear on the scope of services to be provided and will not hesitate to ask detailed questions during the evaluation and vendor interview stage, if the process reaches that point.

I also hope they talk further with administrators and teachers in other comparable districts that have already privatized their custodial services. I know firsthand the most thorough proposal in the world can sometimes hide a vendor's flaws.

At last week's school board meeting, a Lake Orion teacher who lives in the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools district said her discussions with teachers there do not paint a rosy picture of privatized custodial staffing.

She claimed teachers there told her the custodians change weekly and rooms are not cleaned on a daily basis. She added getting a janitor to go out of his or her way once in a while is not easy. The kids say the private custodians are strangers in their buildings.

Such stories are disconcerting, but I learned long ago the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. How Walled Lake runs its district is its business. I also would expect Lake Orion administrators to be watching an outside firm very closely.

Still, there is something to be said for responsiveness, consistency and a familiar face in a school building full of kids, some of whom may already be caught up in chaotic family environments. What's more, the average custodian in Lake Orion has been on the job for nearly 13 years. They know their buildings inside and out. Most are residents of the community.

I asked a couple of building principals here what they thought of their custodial staffs and how close they are to the kids. They both said they are integral to their buildings and they know many of the students on a first-name basis.

Unfortunately, however, money talks today.

If the RFP is distributed, it is my understanding that by law AFSCME will have the opportunity to submit a proposal with its pricing for custodial services just like any other vendor. I hope it is thoughtfully developed, competitive and gives the school board plenty to think about.

The current custodial contract runs through June 2013. In normal times, I would expect this contract to be honored. But these are extraordinary times. If the board does ultimately decide to privatize the custodians, I am not surprised the timetable has them in place as early as this fall. I just hope the current employees would have a fair shot at the jobs.

The school board has a responsibility to the taxpayers and I know they are very serious about saving money. I also know they are committed to providing the best learning environment possible for the district's students, all things considered.

I do not have a definitive solution to this dilemma, but do think if the custodians keep their jobs, there will be concessions and other compromises from both sides.

This is the world we live in now.

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