Portland School District custodians get the axe mid-year

Portland Public School District administrators continue to try to tighten their financial belts on the backs of custodians.

Two weeks ago the district announced that 20 full-time and 64 part-time custodians would be laid off in order to make up for a $310,000 shortfall in this year's facilities department budget.

The union representing custodians and food service workers¯ School Employees Local 140 - immediately filed a grievance, claiming its collective bargaining agreement calls for a two-week notice before any layoff. The certified letters sent to custodians March 23 specified an April 2 layoff date.

In response to the grievance, Grant Walter, president of the union, said the school district delayed the layoffs another week, until Monday, April 12.

Meantime, Local 140 and its parent union, Service Employees International Union, is mobilizing members and community supporters for a school board meeting Monday, April 9, at 6:30 p.m. at 501 N. Dixon St., Portland, to protest the layoffs. They're also asking the community to respond with phone calls and e-mails.

School administrators are defending the job cuts, saying that despite increased budgets, no custodians have been laid off since 1993.

Walter clarified that, explaining that the district has chosen instead to downsize its custodial staff through attrition. In 1982 there were about 700 custodians at the school district. Today it employs 332 full-time custodians, and if the proposed layoffs stick, 248 full-time workers will be left.

An audit in 1998 by the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick recommended that the school district increase funding to custodial services because buildings were "unclean" and "potentially unhealthy" for students and teachers. The audit found that for the Portland School District to move to an average number of custodians compared to districts of similar size, it would have to add 18 to 37 custodial jobs - and that was back in 1998.

"Their goal is to get rid of us and contract out the work," said Walter, noting that it was the first time he can remember layoffs being announced in the middle of a school year.

Walter said that when the school year began, custodians were told that if they scrimped on supplies and worked more efficiently they could get through the year without any jobs cuts.

"We did just that, and this is what happens," he said.

One reason for the unexpected financial shortfall, Walter said, was an interim manager who overspent the custodial budget by overstaffing during the summer of 2000. A new computer software problem was blamed.

Walter said union members also are looking hard at a spate of financial settlements and some hefty contracts for administrators by the school district. The latest was a $404,000 settlement to end a lawsuit filed by Minh Tran, a district administrator who said he was passed over for promotion because he is Asian.

On March 24 it was reported that the highest-paid employee in the Portland Public School District was a contract worker charged with directing the human resources department. Steve Goldschmidt, the brother of former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt and the brother-in-law of former interim Portland School District Superintendent Diane Snowden (Neil's wife), reportedly pulled down $164,000 for 10 months' work.

"All I can say is that the money comes out of the general fund ... and the general fund pays our wages," Walter said.

This is not the first time Local 140 has had to fight to keep union jobs at the school district. In 1998,it beat back a proposal by Snowden to cut 43 custodial positions in an attempt to save money. Part of the union's defense at that time was the Peat Marwick audit that found the district to already be short-staffed in the custodial department. But that same audit also recommended the district enlarge its human resources department in order to improve recruitment selection, training and evaluation of staff.

"The district obviously followed through on that portion of the audit," Walter said. In March 2000, the newly-hired Superintendent Ben Canada unveiled a budget proposal for the 2000-2001 school year that contained more than $700,000 in cuts from "more efficient staffing of custodial operations and maintenance services."

As Canada explained it at that time, savings would come from using student workers and community volunteers to do custodial work. Then, in January 2001, the administration broached a plan to eliminate swing-shift workers at some schools in favor of a graveyard shift by a team of of custodians who would travel around in a van from school to school.

The union was able to rally community support to nix both ideas, arguing each and every time that the issue is not simply a matter of dirty buildings, but rather one of safety for students, teachers and all in the community who use school buildings.

"Custodians do more than sweep floors and empty trash cans," Walter told delegates to the Northwest Oregon Labor Council during their regular meeting March 26. "Custodians take care of the safety and security of the buildings, and deal with activities in the building."

Superintendent Canada said the new round of cuts would mean that, except for restrooms and kitchen areas, schools would be cleaned every other day instead of every day.

Walter and the union maintain that cuts should come from district administration, not teachers or custodians.

April 6, 2001 issue

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