Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tails, You Lose: Custodians and Maintenance Workers

I was happy when I left the Transportation breakout meeting last night. On the other hand, I was very unhappy when I left the AAPS Budget Meeting breakout session on Custodial and Maintenance. It seemed very clear upon leaving that the administration is focused on privatizing, and/or squeezing a huge amount of savings out of the maintenance and custodial staff in some other way. And this feeling that I got was confirmed by David Jesse's article today, Ann Arbor school administrators to recommend privatizing services.

Many years ago, in an environmental studies class, I tried to argue in a paper that organic agriculture could, would, and should win over conventional agriculture for moral and environmental reasons. My professor didn't like that. "No," he commented, "It's all about economics."

It's Not Just About Economics
And I fear that in this case, too, I'm not going to have success in arguing that what the administration wants to do is immoral. I may not be successful, but I will try anyway. The issue of privatizing custodial and maintenance work--an idea that has been pursued over and over by AAPS administration for at least 30 years--is being presented as if it is all about economics, but it shouldn't be, and--as it happens--I don't really believe that it is all about economics.
When we look at the big picture, it's very clear that a) a small group of workers is getting the very short end of the stick and that b) it doesn't have to be that way--even to end up with the same economic results.

Right now, there are fewer than 175 custodial staff, and on their backs we are trying to save $2,000,000. That comes down to trying to save over $11,000 per employee. Bear in mind that we are not talking about the highest paid employees in the district. I think we are talking about some of the lowest-paid employees in the district. Oh, and they "get" to lose their retirement.

Of course there are alternatives. There are 1200 teachers, and only 175 custodial staff. Instead of asking teachers and administrators to take a 4% cut, AAPS could ask everybody to take a 5% cut. Would that really be so terrible? Why should custodial and maintenance workers have to take cuts that are closer to 20% of their renumeration? Would the administration like to give up their retirement? That would be a modest proposal.

It's Not Just About Prevailing Wages and Benefits
(Superintendent) Todd Roberts tried to say to me that the "prevailing wages and benefits" for custodial work are lower than what AAPS pays. Well, first of all, who negotiated those wages and benefits? It does take two to tango, and unions don't make up their own compensation packages.
Second, maybe custodial staff chose to stay with the district because of the benefits--in other words, they may have chosen a (supposedly) secure job with retirement rather than take a different job with better wages but no retirement.
Third, AAPS teachers are also at the top of the county's teacher wage scale, so I guess the "prevailing wages and benefits" for teachers are also lower. That doesn't mean that they deserve less either.
AAPS has per-pupil funding that is also higher than all of the other local districts--by quite a lot. That doesn't mean that we deserve less per-pupil funding. It might mean that other districts deserve more.

So, in sum: Nobody "deserves" less. To ask everybody to sacrifice equally--that seems like the least we could do. 

There Are Other Things to Consider
I have a few other thoughts, too:
  • To the extent that some people end up in custodial and maintenance work because they have relatively low literacy--perhaps because they were not taught well (for example, dyslexia not identified), perhaps because they are immigrants--do the schools actually fail them twice?
  • To the extent that the people who are custodians and maintenance workers are more likely to be people of color--is this just incidental, or is the privatization discriminatory in practice?

Last, but not least: Do not tell me that "everybody else is doing it." I don't care. As a parent, that does not sit well with me. There are things I don't allow my kids to do, even if everybody else is doing it.

UPDATED 4/14/10: The proposal the AAPS administration is promoting does not even try to keep wages and benefits somewhat equal, as they originally said they would. [Why? Because that wouldn't save enough money.] This staff would lose between $2 and $6 per hour; and have a doubling of health care costs; and not get paid time off. This according to David Jesse's article here.

To the school board: I'm asking you to vote no on privatization, and to insist that all employee groups share the pain equitably. 
Everyone else: You can email the school board at

You can also read my earlier posts on privatization:
Privatization History--all the times it didn't work out
Just Say No to Privatization
Retirement, Privatization Details
The Bids Are In
Cui Bono?


  1. I honestly don't think it's a race thing, or education thing, and it is unfair to go there in your argument. Ultimately, it's 175 to 1200 are asking the wrong people to adjust. It's the AAEA that has to agree to concessions to avoid that from happening, and that'll be a hell no moment from that leadership. They are the ones throwing their union buddies under the bus. Great Union spirit there.
    The school doesn't have to have buses except for special ed kids. So remember that.
    I don't believe in privatization, generally it might save some, but with two layers of management, things don't go that well, and people are slow to report and to act on problems. I think the district would eventually end up rehiring that staff again in the future.
    It's not fair to do this, and it sends a terrible message that teachers are above others, that they can't and won't be touched in all these difficulties, and they are better employees and more valuable people. I wouldn't do that vote if I were the board. But life isn't fair, and in life generally them that has, gets.

  2. I agree with the majority of your comment (excepting your first line:). I actually think my moral argument is stronger, but I also think that the administration is using the economics as a smokescreen. I HOPE that you are wrong about the teachers' union. I hope they will stand up for their union siblings.

  3. It's a loaded gun, metaphorically speaking to say that because there are more minorities and oh hey, you not really educated after all, after holding down a full time job respectably for years, that's why the big guys are privatizing you. Think of how hurtful a thing that is to say, especially when you have no proof.
    Privatizing occurs in all industries, IT, medicine, manufacturing etc, it's not about that, and it's hurtful and at it's incorrect for that argument to continue. The board is made up of nice people in a terrible situation. Todd Roberts looks unwell lately. This is just very hard for them, too.
    What they are trying to do is keep that classroom staff intact, for the kids, and the AAEA is not helping. In the end, what happens is about what he AAEA is willing to negotiate. Every one else has to dance around that.
    So don't confuse issues, and add stuff that I truly don't believe belong in the argument.

  4. I'm not sure that it doesn't belong, though it's a place to tread carefully. But the fact is that our custodial workers are among the lower paid employees in the district, and certainly get less respect than others (even teachers!). Not sure about ethnicity, but that may be a factor as well.

    In any case, I'm sympathetic with Ruth's moral argument. And I'm not sure that the AAEA is unwilling to help - it's just that they can't talk about what they are negotiating. However, I am hoping that, now that the district has evaluated bids and we know what the privatization alternative is, the smart folks in our community will find other options that might split the difference.

  5. Actually, I am sympathetic to all the parties--teachers, administration, school board, custodians, office staff--with one exception: the state legislature. This problem begins in all districts, and could end in all districts, if the state would restore promised funding and revamp the way state funding is distributed. It is the state legislature's refusal to invest in education that is causing problems for every district in the state.

  6. The legislators respond to lobbyists and one of the strongest lobby groups and groups that deliver a reliable voting block are MEA members. So again, it about the union and it's influence.
    I am not anti union per se. In life, it's all about dominance and power. The state legislature is currently,especially the Republicans, are bent I believe, in breaking the MEA, and will starve the schools until people yell foul. We aren't there yet. Unfortunately, there's a lot of innocent souls caught in this crossfire.
    But don't just blame the legislators, they are voted in by people who support them. There are plenty of people around who think school staff have it too good and won't lift a finger to help fund it further.

  7. Of course there is a political backdrop to the decisions that are going on. Our local legislators have been generally supportive of increased funding for schools, so in our area, I would say that people are voting for that. I generally think most people don't understand school funding, and it is kind of complicated. I really like Jack Lessenberry's commentaries on the legislature and school funding, and he blames the inaction--not on individual legislators--but on the leadership in the House and Senate. You can hear him on Michigan Radio or read/listen to his commentary at

  8. And here is Jack Lessenberry's most recent commentary on education and the legislature:

  9. Going to leadership is to complain about the outcome and not on the general mood of the state is like blaming someone for a phobia when they have an anxiety disorder. Maybe not a clear metaphor, but the problem is that in this state, there is a lot of people that don't want to fund union folks, and they vote, and that is reflected in their voting records of the legislatures. Cooler heads can't currently prevail, and should have prevailed a few years ago, but Steve Norton did a good job explaining why that didn't happen a few years.