Preparing for a difficult budget cycle, Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Phil Ertl is asking the school board to outsource 40 custodial positions to save an estimated $925,000 annually.
The board likely will vote on the measure Monday, May 19, but members discussed the proposal Monday, May 5. More than 70 people packed the room hoping to stop the measure, arguing the current district-employed custodians are worth every penny.
"I find it insulting when we use the words 'saving money' when we discuss this proposal," said Karen Suarez Flint, whose children attend McKinley Elementary. "This is devastating to families. Once you decide money is more important than people, where do you go from there?"
Parents and teachers took the microphone one after the other, choking up as they shared examples of the impact custodians have had on their schools. One teacher recalled the custodian who watched from a school window to make sure she was safe walking to her car at night. Another teacher said a custodian equipped her with a flashlight and security lights after her lights went out on her first week of teaching.
One woman started saying, "Stand up if a custodian ever ..." and immediately most of the room was standing and clapping too loud to hear the rest.
"It's been hard to stay positive, especially since Act 10," said Katie Petitt, a kindergarten teacher at Roosevelt. "This decision is making us just like all the other districts, and I was hoping we were different."
Ertl said it was hard to hear the comments, but they didn't sway him.
"It's a difficult part of the job and these are the most difficult recommendations I have to make," Ertl said. "I think it's the right thing to do."
Savings to be seen
Ertl expects the outsourcing would save about $925,000 every year. That comes from a savings of $530,000 in labor and benefits, $160,000 in supplies, $155,000 in overtime pay and $80,000 in workers' compensation insurance.
Under the proposal, the district would keep 11 of its full-time custodial employees, including four building supervisors, four custodians and three head custodians who serve as engineers. The other six head custodians would be laid off, along with 25 other custodians, four school building cleaners and five school building aides.
If the proposal does not go through, Ertl said, the district likely will have to make the cut somewhere else — and there's a good chance it would still be a staffing change.
"With every decision we make regarding budgets, it's an issue of priorities," he said. "If it's not here, then it's somewhere else."
Although the district doesn't yet know how much state funding it will receive for its next budget, Ertl expects it will not be enough to maintain its current expenditures.
"Every year, we operate in a deficit," Ertl said. "We're trying to get in a situation where we are prepared when it comes."
Other districts face issue
Wauwatosa isn't the first district to consider outsourcing custodial work.
The Mequon-Thiensville School Board laid off 17 custodial staff members in 2010 to save $700,000 over the next two school years. In 2012, New Berlin laid off 45 custodians to save about $500,000 annually.
Demond Means, Mequon-Thiensville superintendent, said although the decision was one of the most difficult he has ever made, the district's savings allowed it to hold down class sizes and maintain its textbook budget and other areas of "academic support."
"The men and women impacted by the decision weighed heavily on me," Means said in a statement. "However, the funds that the district was able to save and re-direct to the classroom was significant."
The Kettle Moraine School District has been contracting custodial staff for more than 10 years. Kettle Moraine Director of Facilities and Safety Dale Zabel said the schools have found the best approach is a hybrid one, with a district-employed head custodian at each school, and contracted employees serving as cleaners at the elementary schools.
At first, Kettle Moraine contracted all custodians at its elementary schools, but Zabel said the district realized it was important to have its own employees in each of the schools.
"We use our in-house employees because, first of all, stability," Zabel said. "With contracted employees, the turnover is very rapid because of the low wage they pay."
Zabel said the district uses a more expensive small company, Dan Plautz Cleaning Services, that pays its employees more than most, because the employees are more loyal. But Zabel said the district has still saved money, mostly from not having to provide benefits packages.
In Shorewood, school board members considered outsourcing custodians as part of its budget process last year, but ultimately decided against it. District spokeswoman Rachel Vesco said the district worked with custodians to find another way to save money — hiring part-time cleaners, who don't receive benefits, to replace some staff as they retired or resigned.
"No employees lost their full-time positions," Vesco said. "We think this allows custodians and supervisors to get to know our community and residents, and we think that better serves our district."
Buildings and Grounds Manager Tom Kulczewski said the district already has sent out a request for proposals, asking companies not just to name their price, but to explain how they do background checks, what training they provide on security and safety, and their turnover rates.
School board members likely will vote on whether to approve a contract May 19.
School board members did not say how they would vote, but some expressed sympathy for the custodians and concerns about security with non-district employees.
"Jan. 31, 1990, I was laid off and walked out the door," board member Michael Meier said, adding that he found a new job May 30 of that year. "Those were a long four months without work, so I have direct experience and empathy for people in this situation. ... If we approve this, we won't be what we were."
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