2015-05-13 / Front Page

Custodial complaints stir debate: What next?

School official: contractor held to ‘higher standard’
By Jim McConnell

When school officials decided last year to outsource custodial services at eight county schools, they also developed a system to monitor the contractor’s job performance.

During a meeting last summer, principals of the eight outsourced schools were told that they should report any issues with employees of GCA Services Group to the school system’s facilities department – specifically, the assistant director responsible for oversight of custodial services.

As first reported in the Observer’s May 6 edition, the facilities department has logged nearly 200 complaints about GCA custodians since last July. The complaints range from a general lack of cleanliness (dingy floors, trash bins not being emptied) to insubordination and failure to secure schools’ exterior doors during overnight hours.

It’s unclear, however, what the school system intends to do with that information.

“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,” said Rodney Martin, a Midlothian resident and frequent critic of the school administration.

Martin and other citizens – including several custodians currently employed by Chesterfield County Public Schools – have repeatedly asked school and county officials to reconsider custodial outsourcing and determine whether the negative impacts outweigh the financial benefits.

But the school system already has decided to expand its outsourcing program to an additional 28 schools during the 2015-16 school year – a move that is expected to save about $3.5 million. It also will force 200 custodial employees off the school system’s payroll. (The private contractor, however, is required to offer jobs to former school custodial workers.)

A request for proposals from companies interested in fulfilling the school system’s custodial contract closed last month. School officials are in the process of evaluating the submitted proposals; an announcement about the chosen vendor could be forthcoming.

While school officials have acknowledged issues with GCA’s performance, they’ve mostly downplayed the significance of any problems. County watchdog Brenda Stewart, a Matoaca resident, said that’s because they’re determined to move forward on custodial outsourcing and don’t want to justify their decision to the public.

Tim Bullis, a spokesman for the school system, said in an email last week that GCA is being held to a “higher standard” than custodians currently employed by the school system.

“The school division does not ask staff members to submit a report for excessive dust or dirty edges or corners,” he wrote.

Bullis also noted that more than 50 percent of the complaints about GCA custodians were reported last September and October, the first two months the company was “on the job with students and teachers in the building.

“There has been a dramatic decrease in the monthly reports since those first two months,” Bullis said. “Many of the items noted – dusting, litter, etc. – are easily correctable.”

Other problems, such as the failure to properly secure school buildings, have lingered into the second half of the school year.

Manchester High staff reporting for work on the morning of Feb. 25 were unable to enter the building because none of the custodians assigned to the school had arrived to unlock doors at its main entrance.

Classes at all 11 of the county’s high schools begin at 7:20 a.m., but teachers are permitted to arrive as early as 6 a.m. to begin preparations.

GCA’s contract with the county requires the company to have a custodian on duty by 6 a.m. at the three high schools it is currently servicing – Manchester, L.C. Bird and Clover Hill.

When Martin, who had heard about other issues related to GCA’s performance, received an anonymous tip about custodians failing to arrive on time at Manchester, he decided to notify county leaders.

On Feb. 27, Martin sent an email to three members of the Board of Supervisors – Jim Holland, Steve Elswick and Dan Gecker – and School Board representatives Dianne Smith and Debra Girvin, asking them to look into the situation.

Martin sent a subsequent email to the clerks of both boards, asking them to forward his original message to any members not specifically listed as recipients, as well as Chesterfield

County Public Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome and County Administrator Jay Stegmaier.

Martin also followed up with a phone call to Elswick, who said he’d contact Carrie Coyner, chairwoman of the School Board.

Four days later, Martin received an email response from Coyner, informing him that his claim about GCA custodians not reporting for work at Manchester High on Feb. 25 was incorrect.

“GCA staff was on the job every day this week. I personally verified this with the Manchester High School principal,” Coyner wrote.

The school system’s official GCA complaint report appears to directly contradict Coyner’s assertion. One entry notes that on Feb. 25, there was “no day custodian on staff” at Manchester High; “supervisor arrived at 7:25 after called.”

The Observer contacted Coyner via email on May 1 seeking comment regarding her email to Martin.

Coyner responded that she had asked Andy Hawkins, who at the time served as the school system’s assistant superintendent for finance, to look into Martin’s Feb. 27 email and contact Manchester High.

“Mr. Hawkins stated that he contacted the Manchester HS Principal and that GCA had been on the job every day that week,” Coyner wrote.

Hawkins tendered his resignation in February but remained on the job until March 31. He now works for the school system in Manassas.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Martin cited Coyner’s original claim that she “personally” contacted the school and verified that GCA custodians had fulfilled their duties at Manchester.

Hawkins didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment last week.

Martin insisted that his Feb. 27 email wasn’t intended to make Coyner or anyone else look bad but simply to bring GCA’s issues to the attention of county leaders.

“This is yet another example that neither board cares,” he added.

According to the county’s contract with GCA, the school system is able to reduce its payment to the company for failing to perform required duties “in a complete and thorough manner.”

In the event that a school building is left unsecured due to negligence of the company’s representatives, the school system also is permitted to reduce its payment to GCA to cover the cost of bringing in school personnel to secure the building.

It’s unclear whether the school system has deducted any money from its monthly appropriations to GCA.

Bullis said via email last week that because the school system remains involved in the process of procuring a new custodial contract, “we are not able to discuss any information that might impact the selection process.”

During a March interview, Coyner insisted that enforcement of financial penalties for the contractor’s failure to meet the school system’s standards will be a priority in the next phase of custodial outsourcing.

“We know what needs to be done better,” she said.

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