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School janitors could lose jobs in outsourcing

Outsourcing custodial, maintenance and grounds keeping services could save the Monroe County School District $1.2 million but would likely cost some of the lowest paid district workers their jobs.

Jeff Barrow, the district assistant director of facilities for the Middle and Upper Keys, presented that figure to members of the school board at a Tuesday meeting in Marathon based on a number of responses to a bid and request for proposals issued in April.

Barrow said that nine vendors had responded to a request for proposals for custodial and maintenance work and would be reviewed and ranked by a school district committee before coming back to board members in the form of a recommendation at their July 21 meeting.

Barrow said that, considering the responses, there was a potential to save more than $1 million because a private company could do more for less.

“They’re more efficient,” he said. “They’re going to be working smarter. There probably will be less people. They use more training and machinery instead of manpower. They’re more efficient in their ability to get people to perform the required work. Their management structure is geared toward that.”

Michael McClung, the lead custodian at Marathon High, stressed that custodians do more than just clean. He said they also help teachers by moving furniture, changing light bulbs and other tasks. He also stressed the importance of school-related personnel in preparation and aftermath of hurricanes.

After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the custodial staff were, “the ones who had our schools back up and running in three days while every other county took two weeks, three weeks,” McClung said. “We’re asking you not to break up this family.”

During the public input portion of the meeting, two speakers observed that the problem seemed to be not with the actual workers but with those who manage their activities.

Ed Davidson, a community watchdog who regularly attends school board meetings, called the potential savings derived from outsourcing “a colossal, $1-million admission of bad in-house management and the failure of motivational leadership. What we need is better management from the district bureaucracy instead of firing so many of our current employees.”

For grounds keeping services, the district advertised a straight bid as opposed to a “request for proposals.” The former details a more specific, measurable service as opposed to soliciting a top-down overhaul from a vendor.

Barrow said, based on the five vendor responses, the work could be done for about $140,000. The current cost to the district is around $400,000 per year.

In a budget cycle, beginning again July 1, that has prompted district officials to plan $7.8 million in cuts, the potential of $1.2 million in savings is particularly significant, Barrow said.

Sanctions lifted

The school board on Tuesday voted unanimously to rescind sanctions it levied earlier in the month against the volunteer Audit and Finance Committee.

The sanctions, a 60-day hiatus and mandate for ethics training, came on the heels of the revelation that Chief Internal Auditor Ken Gentile, acting on concerns expressed by committee Chairman Stuart Kessler, had taken evidence of an apparent open meetings, or “sunshine,” law violation to the State Attorney’s Office. The law requires most elected officials to only discuss business during publicly-announced meetings.

The meeting in question was between Superintendent Joseph Burke and members of the teacher’s union regarding unpaid furlough days.

But school board Vice Chairman Andy Griffiths was angered that the Kessler and Gentile went to assistant state attorney Mark Wilson with their concerns, instead of first talking with the school board. The sanctions, approved at a school board meeting on June 14, were largely interpreted as a punishment for bypassing the board with concerns that have negative connotations. Griffiths has since apologized for his decision and said he was wrong to punish the committee.

Board member Duncan Mathewson asked Gentile, during a discussion Tuesday about the committee, to come up with a communications plan that would keep the school board in the loop and also govern how information is disseminated to the press.

The latter is a topic that has been broached several times by board members in recent months, generally couched in terms of mitigating perceived “bad press.”

Gentile said that the press “plays a vital role” and is “very positive in terms of fostering change. I also believe the press needs to be accurate in reporting the facts, and timely, and fair in terms of what they report. I think it’s something that at least needs to be workshopped.”

Board members also asked Gentile to clarify who, in terms of board members and district employees, should take information to the State Attorney’s Office.

“By simply raising a question with the State Attorney’s Office,” Mathewson said, “no matter who does it...sends a flag up that there might be something wrong. That’s important to remember.”

Gentile, in response, said, “It’s all of our responsibility. Those types of questions should not be restricted or channeled.”

Board Chairman John Dick reiterated his distaste for any policy that would attempt to control or curtail external communication. .

“From my point of view, it’s very important that people aren’t afraid or hesitate to go to the State Attorney or any other legal authority. I’m also very concerned. I don’t want to see a communications plan that is trying to choke off the press. The press is very important. I would not want to see you try to remove the rights of any people to speak to the press.”

Dick was not at the June 14 meeting and did not vote for the sanctions. He expressed outraged when he heard the news while on vacation in Puerto Rico

Chief Operating Officer Jesus Jara said a meeting to correct the sunshine law violation is set for July 22.

Superintendent Joseph Burke said: “We anticipate it will be an approved curative meeting and hopefully it will resolve the situation. After having thought that we had already done that, I don’t want to assume.”