School District intends to contract out custodial jobs

Portland School Employees Local 140 President Grant Walter received the closest thing to a "death warrant" a union can get - a letter Feb. 5 from his employer announcing a plan to eliminate all bargaining unit jobs as of July 1.

"The purpose of this letter," wrote Portland Public Schools (PPS) interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger, "is to notify you that the district is now proposing to subcontract out all of the custodial services currently being performed by members of the bargaining unit represented by Local 140."

The union is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The district's leadership doesn't want to contract out, PPS spokesman Lew Frederick told the Northwest Labor Press. Rather, contracting out is one of a number of undesirable options the district feels may be necessary because of an anticipated $30 to $50 million budget shortfall. Eight to 9 million dollars of that shortfall, Frederick said, comes from increased health care costs. The remainder comes from anticipated state budget cuts.

As of press time, the exact amount of the cuts to schools and other state budget items had yet to be decided following a special session of the Legislature Feb. 8-11 to make up a $715 million budget shortfall.

The district says contracting out custodial services would save $5.3 million a year and permit schools to be cleaned more frequently. Lower pay for custodians would be the source of the savings. Custodians earn $24,000 to $42,000 a year under Local 140's contract with the district. Their replacements would likely make $19,000 a year. Frederick said the district would only consider contractors that paid a "living wage" of at least $9 an hour, plus minimum health benefits.

No equivalent proposal to find cheaper managers is being considered by the district. Twelve of the district's top managers make over $100,000 a year or more, including Steve Goldschmidt, the district's new human resources chief, whom union leaders point to as the source of the proposal to contract out.

Goldschmidt makes $132,000 a year, plus a $20,000 annual bonus for meeting performance goals. When he was hired last May, he was also promised two years of car lease payments and a $2,000 a month housing allowance until he could buy a house in Portland. Prior to that, the district had paid him $307,000 for 16 months of part-time work as a consultant, at the same time he continued to consult for other districts and earn a salary as a professor at University of Oregon. Goldschmidt is the brother of former Oregon governor and ex-Portland mayor Neil Goldschmidt, whose wife Diane Snowden was interim superintendent at PPS before superintendent Ben Canada, who resigned last year under pressure from the school board.

When Snowden hired him as a consultant in 1999, Goldschmidt was known as an aggressive "hired gun," for school districts engaged in labor disputes. When he represented the Eugene School District in 1987, teachers walked out for 22 days, the longest teachers strike in Oregon history.

"He has not been a friend of teachers," said Portland Association of Teachers President Richard Garrett. "He's not a problem solver - he creates problems with unions."

Garrett said since Goldschmidt was made head of human resources at the Portland school district, even small details of side agreements - such as policies on teacher use of technology - languish nine months unresolved.

All this leads union leaders to wonder whether getting rid of the in-house custodians - and their union - may be part of the appeal of contracting out. They point to bad experiences other districts have had with privatizing -lower-than-expected cost savings and unclean schools - as further reason to oppose contracting out.

Walter predicts low wages and benefits among the new set of custodians will lead to low morale, high absenteeism and rapid turnover, resulting in school buildings that are less safe, less clean and less healthy.

"Everybody in the schools - teachers, parents, administrators -knows we have a real health issue at stake in the cleanliness of the buildings," agrees teachers' union president Garrett. "Nobody believes that contracting out will help."

Union steward Larry Kirk, a custodian at Arleta Elementary School in Portland, thinks custodial staff cuts in the last decade have already had a negative effect on the healthfulness of the buildings. In 1982, the district had 700 custodians; today it has 311. At their current staffing level, custodians are only able to sweep some classrooms once every three days.

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. No increase has occurred; last May, the district cut 84 more custodians.

"There isn't a building that's been clean in seven years," Kirk said. Kirk said he once removed 250 pounds of pigeon dung from building air vents after hearing about teachers experiencing sinus problems.

In Local 140's contract, in effect from 1999 through 2004, there is no provision preventing the district from contracting out. A wage reopener was scheduled to start March 1; instead, custodians may be asked to negotiate the details of their severance.

Their jobs on the line, custodians are calling for support from fellow union members and from anyone who values the contributions of custodians or opposes privatizing public service jobs. The union is asking people to attend the meeting of the school board at which the contracting out proposal will be discussed Monday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. at 501 N. Dixon, or to call or write board members.

February 15, 2002 issue

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