2016-09-21 / News

Superintendent: Custodial outsourcing is here to stay

By Jim McConnell

Regardless of problems that occurred during its implementation, the county’s school system won’t abandon the outsourcing of custodial services to a private contractor.

Chesterfield County Public Schools Superintendent James Lane noted during last week’s School Board meeting that the school system simply cannot afford to reverse course on outsourcing custodial work at county schools.

“With the amount of money we’ve saved, it would be very difficult for us to ever consider stepping back,” Lane said. “I don’t want to say the word ‘impossible,’ but very difficult.”

Chris Sorensen, assistant superintendent for finance, presented the School Board last week with a document that shows by the end of fiscal year 2017, the school system expects to save nearly $7.1 million over the first three years of custodial outsourcing.

That’s $400,000 less than originally projected – a result, Sorensen said, of the board’s decision last year to retain nine custodians on the school system’s payroll who each had between 25 and 29 years of service.

The move gave those veteran custodians an opportunity to reach the 30-year service threshold required to receive full retirement benefits.

More than 400 other custodians have lost their jobs over the past three years as the School Board sought to free up additional resources that could be used in the county’s classrooms.

“The School Board has reallocated existing funds to help reduce class sizes that were increased as a result of previous budget cuts and worked to see that our teacher compensation remains competitive throughout the region,” said the board’s chairwoman, Dianne Smith.

Sorensen pointed out that the percentage of the school system’s budget allocated to instruction has increased each of the last three years.

“While we didn’t tie dollar-for-dollar the savings from custodial outsourcing to something else, we’re very confident it went to instruction,” he added.

The School Board implemented the final phase of its outsourcing program July 1, when Tennessee-based SSC Service Solutions assumed responsibility for custodial services at all 65 county schools and seven other buildings.

That was also the official start of Lane’s tenure as Chesterfield superintendent. The School Board hired him away from Goochland County in March to succeed Marcus Newsome, who is presently serving as superintendent in Petersburg.

During the board’s quarterly work session in late June, Lane spoke of the need to “transparently inform the community” about how much money the school system was actually saving from custodial outsourcing.

Last week, Lane called Sorensen’s presentation “very insightful.”

The superintendent subsequently provided the Observer with a copy of the budget analysis Sorensen had provided to the School Board.

“What it has done for me is turn us from a focus on whether outsourcing was the right decision,” Lane said. “We’re going to focus our efforts going forward on making the project – whether it’s with our current vendor or a future vendor – as effective as possible to make sure we’re getting the best out of the vendor we’ve hired.”

The School Board has come under fire both for its decision to outsource custodians, who were among its lowest-paid employees in the county school system, and for the performance of its selected contractors.

Smith and Vice Chairwoman Carrie Coyner are the only current School Board members who were on the board when the school system hired GCA Services Group to manage custodial services at eight schools during the 2014-15 school year.

By May 2015, the school system had logged nearly 200 complaints about the company’s performance. Most of the complaints noted a general lack of cleanliness at the outsourced schools, but there were also concerns about custodians failing to report for work on time and refusing to perform assigned duties.

Several concerned citizens asked the School Board to abandon the outsourcing program and rehire custodians that had been terminated. Instead, the school system solicited a new round of proposals and chose SSC Service Solutions to take over the custodial contract.

The school system’s fiscal year 2017 budget includes $11.6 million for custodial outsourcing.

As part of its emphasis on accountability, SSC has developed a quarterly survey by which school principals can evaluate the performance of the company’s custodians. SSC has received high marks on those surveys for responding quickly to address principals’ concerns, but the overall reviews have been less favorable.

During an April meeting, SSC representatives acknowledged that only 63 percent of Chesterfield principals had expressed satisfaction with the company’s work.

Rob Thompson, who represents the Matoaca magisterial district on the School Board, said that SSC was “nowhere near” meeting its performance standard – described by the Association of Physical Plant Administrators as “ordinary tidiness.”

But because the school system never tracked complaints about its custodians prior to outsourcing, it has no baseline data to objectively evaluate whether the contractor’s employees actually are doing a better or worse job of cleaning county schools.

“It remains the School Board’s intention to meet the community expectation of safe, supportive and nurturing schools,” Smith said. “We are continuing to work with the vendor to monitor work so that it meets or exceeds the standard.”

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