School janitors in Miami-Dade are struggling to keep buildings clean as budget cuts and the loss of students to charter schools have led to reductions in custodial staff.
At a School Board meeting on Wednesday, janitors and union representatives said custodians are overworked and unable to keep up with the cleaning demands at the county’s schools. They urged the school district to hire more janitors and reevaluate how custodians are assigned to schools.
“These kids matter. They need to come into a clean school,” said Helen Huls, a custodian and vice president for the AFSCME Local 1184 union, which represents Miami-Dade school custodians. “All we need is some help, please. We’re burning out. The custodians are burning out, they’re calling out. They don’t want to come to work because they’re by themselves.”
Antonio Brooks, the head custodian at Kendale Elementary, told the Miami Herald that when he started working at the school about three years ago, there were three custodians working during the day shift. Now Brooks is the only one. There are four custodians who clean the school at night.
“We’re short-staffed,” Brooks said. “In order to keep our schools top-notch we really need the manpower to get it done.”
Brooks said the lack of custodians creates safety hazards.
“When you put that amount of workload on one person, you increase the chance of injuries,” he said. Brooks said he suffered a facial fracture and a mild concussion last October when an old greenhouse at the school collapsed while he was trying to clear it out on his own.
“Things have to change,” he said.
The issues date back to the 2012-2013 school year when budget cuts following the recession led to changes in how the number of custodians at each school is determined. A school’s square footage used to be the main factor in determining the number of janitors, but as a cost-cutting measure principals have been given more discretion in deciding how many janitors they hire. Under the current formula, the number of students at a school is one of the key factors in making hiring decisions, meaning that some schools that have lost numerous students to charters now have fewer janitors to clean the same square footage.
“No matter how many students are in the building, the building doesn’t shrink,” said Vicki Hall, the president of the AFSCME Local 1184 union. “They’re tired, they’re burned out. They’re not being respected.”
Hall said she has been raising concerns with the school district for the last two years. She said some school custodians unable to keep up with the workload have been disciplined by school administrators for failing to complete their work. Miami-Dade Schools spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the district is not aware of any complaints of this nature from custodians.
School Board member Steve Gallon sponsored an item at the board meeting calling on the school district to reevaluate how it determines the number of janitors. The item passed unanimously with four co-sponsors.
“This is an opportunity for that review, discussion and level of engagement with those employees that are affected ... in the hopes of providing an acceptable remedy to improve the working conditions, the equity and allocation, distribution and, more importantly, the maintenance and upkeep of our schools for our teachers, staff and students,” Gallon told the Herald.
The school district said it is aware of the custodians’ concerns and has taken recent steps to address them.
Chief Financial Officer Judith Marte said the district has been meeting with custodians for several months to discuss possible solutions. The district recently invested $1 million in new cleaning equipment to make it easier for janitors to do their job and purchased non-slip pads for custodians’ shoes to reduce the risk of injury.
The school district has lost nearly 40,000 students to charter schools in the last five years, Marte said, and is evaluating whether schools that have seen significant declines in enrollment should still use every classroom in the building. If schools reduce the amount of space they use, Marte said, custodians will have less square footage to clean.
The school district employs 1,926 full-time custodians and 584 part-time custodians for 392 schools. Nearly 90 people signed up to speak at Wednesday’s School Board meeting about the issues school janitors face, but by the time the item was discussed — at 10:45 p.m. — only two people on the list were still at the meeting.