Custodians in Nashua and their supporters are expected to hold a rally Monday evening ahead of a school board meeting to protest the board’s decision to end their union contract.
In a move that took many by surprise, the board voted 7-1 earlier this month to seek bids from private contractors to take over the district’s custodial services — and union members aren’t taking the move sitting down.
About 100 custodians could be out of a job at the end current school year if the district follows through with the decision.
That of course is a big concern for the workers and their union, AFSME Council 93 — but in the eyes of Jim Durkin, the union’s political affairs director, there’s another concern: who would replace the laid-off janitors.
“These contract vendors are basically a cleaning crew,” Durkin said. “They pay very low wages, no benefits, and as result there’s extremely high turnover. You contrast that with men and women who have been doing these jobs for 10, 20, even 30 years. They’re part of the fiber of the school community.”
The union represents some 44,000 members across New England, and Durkin is well aware of the trend of budget-minded cities and towns turning to privatization to try and save some money.
Finances aside, Durkin insisted that officials need to seriously consider the risks of outsourcing labor, especially in schools. He points to several reported cases of misconduct by employees of a custodial contractor in the Massachusetts town of Chelmsford — including one who was arrested for stealing computers from a school.
Of course, there are also districts that have been pleased with the results of outsourcing. In Manchester — the state’s largest school district — officials have sung the praises of Aramark, the contractor that took over custodial services several years ago.
For George Farrington, the president of the Nashua Board of Education, the decision comes down to finances. Because of the city’s tax cap, he expects the district will only have about $1.3 million dollars more to spend in the next fiscal year. That has to cover all increases in costs, from maintenance to salaries and benefits.
“Based on my experience on the board, I just felt like that puts us in a situation where there’s very good likelihood in my opinion that we would end up having to cut teachers and increase class size as we grapple with the real budget issues in the spring,” Farrington said. “With all the things coming together, at this point in time it just seems this is something we need to pursue.”
Farrington said the savings that might come from outsourcing custodial services will depend on the bids the district receives, but he anticipates that the savings will be “substantial.”
Members of the custodial staff are currently paid between $17 and $25 an hour, plus benefits.
Union members have also slammed the school board for not discussing the plan publicly before voting on it and not approaching them to renegotiate their contract.
Farrington says that the board took the approach it did because it would not be allowed to pursue privatization during contract negotiations with the union.
Meanwhile, the union is attempting to mobilize public support. An online petition calling on the school board to reverse the decision went up last week.
And if there hasn’t been much public discussion of the privatization plan before the vote earlier this month, that will probably change at tonight’s meeting.