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2015-05-06 / Front Page

Schools log hundreds of custodial complaints

Outsourcing issues mount; janitor hands teacher a mop
By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER

A recently obtained document suggests that employees of the company contracted to provide custodial services for eight county schools have compromised building security by failing to perform their required duties.

The document, a spreadsheet that lists all official complaints filed by school system employees against GCA Services Group custodians since last July, notes multiple instances in which exterior doors to school buildings were left unlocked overnight.

Those are among nearly 200 complaints the school system has received since its leaders decided last year to begin outsourcing custodial services at L.C. Bird, Manchester and Clover Hill high schools; the Career and Technical Center on Hull Street; Bailey Bridge and Providence middle schools; and Swift Creek and Elizabeth Scott elementary schools.

County resident Brenda Stewart obtained the document from Chesterfield County Public Schools via a Freedom of Information Act request last month, then provided a copy to the Observer.

School officials have defended the controversial outsourcing plan as necessary to direct maximum resources to the classroom. They expect to save about $3.5 million during fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1, by outsourcing custodial services at an additional 28 schools.

“It was a decision made for the long term,” School Board Chairwoman Carrie Coyner said in March. “Our mission is to provide the absolute best education to every child regardless of their background. To do that, we’ve looked at every area of our operation outside the classroom.”

Custodians currently employed by Chesterfield County Public Schools and other concerned citizens have expressed misgivings about the plan, arguing that a relatively small financial benefit doesn’t justify the elimination of more than 200 jobs and an overall reduction in service quality.

According to complaints filed by school system employees, contracting out custodial services has created some problems. In addition to doors being left unlocked, custodians failing to report for work as scheduled and a general lack of attention to detail in cleaning, some of their concerns are related to specific incidents listed in the GCA complaint report, including:

• Sept. 16, custodians reportedly propped open exterior doors at L.C. Bird High so they could re-enter the building; they had yet to be provided keys.

• On Dec. 4, a set of master keys went missing at Providence Middle, and none of the custodians assigned to the school could account for the keys whereabouts.

• On Feb. 24, a service dog vomited inside a classroom at Manchester High, and a custodian reportedly stated it wasn’t his job to clean it up.

• On March 11, a custodian handed a mop and bucket to a Manchester High teacher after a student had an accident in the school’s severe disabilities area.

“We know custodians who work for the county make mistakes, too,” said Rodney Martin, a citizen watchdog who has tried to convince school officials to reconsider their outsourcing plan. “Stuff is going to happen. The question is, ‘Who is taking any accountability for this?’ We need checks and balances to make sure GCA is doing what we’re paying them to do.”

Excessive staff turnover and a lack of employee accountability have been cited as two of GCA’s major issues since the company began working in county schools last July.

Laura Hebert and Deborah Marks, principals at L.C. Bird and Clover Hill high schools, respectively, each have filed a number of complaints about the quality of work performed by GCA custodians and the lack of cleanliness in their buildings, according to school records.

Officials with GCA didn’t respond to an email request seeking comment by press time.

Coyner has acknowledged that there have been problems with GCA but in the past has insisted that “perfection” was not a realistic goal for the first phase of the outsourcing plan.

“Of course there are some things we didn’t think of – that’s how it works when you do something new,” she said earlier this year. “We know what needs to be done better.”

School officials have put out a new request for proposals for the next phase of custodial outsourcing. Regardless of whether GCA or another company is selected, Coyner noted during a March interview that the new contract will include financial penalties for failure to meet the school system’s standards.

Stewart, a frequent critic of the school system, said that those protections should have been put in place before county officials agreed to terms with GCA.

She also questioned the School Board’s decision to expand custodial outsourcing to 28 schools “without seeing a reasoned, comprehensive evaluation” of the first phase.

School officials are unlikely to postpone the second phase of the outsourcing program. In the short term, they need the $3.5 million to be able to give employees the second half of a 2-percent salary increase included in the fiscal year 2016 budget, which the Board of Supervisors approved last month.

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