Source: Sherman Publications

‘If this happens, we lose everything’

by Susan Bromley

April 11, 2012

Brandon Twp.- When Randy Carpenter left a job at Sam’s Club to come work as a custodian in the Brandon School District 15 years ago, he believed he was making the right move for himself and his family.

“I came here for a better job, with better pay and insurance,” said Carpenter. “I figured I would have a job until I retired and could raise my kids.”

At 50-years-old, the married father of three children isn’t ready for retirement, is still raising his children, ages 14, 12, and 8, and is terrified he may be about to lose his job as the school board considers privatizing custodial services. He is not alone— 15 other employees in the custodian group will also be out of work, many of whom have as many years in as Carpenter, if not more. Most, he said, are also around his age, and many live in the district. They are now calling him, their union steward.

“They’re all asking, ‘What will we do?’” said Carpenter. “If this happens, we lose everything. It’s very scary to say the least... It’s hard to find a job, let alone find a job with insurance where you can take care of your family. This will be devastating. I’m not the only one, these other people have families, too.”

Carpenter and the other custodians in Brandon offered wage and other concessions two years ago in an effort to save the district money and save their jobs. Now they will meet again with the district on April 24 as they try to find a way to compete with proposals from private companies that district administrators say are offering up to $200,000 in savings and additional service hours.

Joe Valenti, vice-president of Teamsters Local 214, representing food service, transportation, and custodian employees in the district, said those numbers are inaccurate. The district had budgeted for custodial services provided by the Teamsters at $906,122, but he said the district has rates of pay that are inaccurate and they had budgeted $16,000 for insurance for an employee who is not taking the benefit.

Valenti said two district custodians recently confirmed they are retiring this year. New employees would be hired in at a lower rate of pay and the district, he added, could even hire four employees at the same cost. He is hopeful with the retirement of the employees, getting the numbers corrected, and with changes to the insurance plan, he could get the district’s custodial costs under $700,000, and close to what they would pay a private company.

“Right now, we are roped into the same insurance as the teachers,” Valenti said. “For the custodians, food service, and bus drivers, we need to look at different insurance than what the teachers have. It could save everyone a ton of money.”

Superintendent Lorrie McMahon said the cost is not the only gap between the private companies and the district custodians. The private companies are offering not only monetary savings, but more employees— 8-10 more employees.

Additionally, the big stumbling block, she said, are the retirement costs the district has to pay to all of its employees, as mandated by the state.

“We are negotiating with all our unions and retirement costs for all of them is something we struggle with,” McMahon said. “We will go to the meeting with the custodian group and see what they are offering.”

The state of Michigan currently requires a 24 percent contribution to public school employees’ retirement, meaning that for every dollar paid in wages to employees, the district must contribute 24 cents to the employee’s retirement. Next year, it will be a 27.37 percent contribution.

The district is currently looking at a deficit of $1.3 million for the 2012-2013 school year. The board will soon accept bids for transportation privatization, too.

Both Carpenter and Valenti say a big advantage to keeping the district’s custodial staff and not going to a private company is that the current staff lives in the district, and their lengthy employment here means they know the kids and have a vested interest in the district.

“We have to look at more than just the bottom dollar,” said Valenti. “If it’s $300,000 or $400,000 savings, then I guess you do what you have to do. But if I get it within $50,000 to $75,000, is it worth those savings to put 16 people out of work? Everyone needs to take into consideration the whole package, not just the dollar amount.”

McMahon said a decision regarding privatization needs to be made by mid-May at the latest so the district can complete the budget and employees will know the situation. If the district chooses to privatize, she said the new company would be brought in July 1.