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2017-07-12 / Featured / Front Page

Could school system scrap privatization?

Contract clause opens door to reconsider outsourcing janitors
BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

After three years, two private contractors and hundreds of complaints about a lack of cleanliness in Chesterfield schools, the superintendent and School Board could contemplate scrapping the privatization of janitorial services at county schools.

A new clause in the school system’s contract with Tennessee-based SSC Service Solutions, which took effect July 1, now requires the company to achieve and maintain a specified performance standard in 90 percent of school facilities by Nov. 30 to secure renewal of the 12-month agreement.

Should SSC fail to meet that threshold, school officials are expected to begin preparations to terminate the contract and may consider returning direct management of custodial services to the school system effective July 1, 2018.

Tim Bullis, a spokesman for Chesterfield County Public Schools, acknowledged via email earlier this month that school leaders “have begun to consider future options” related to the custodial contract.

“The amended contract sets a firm timeline for continued improvement. If the vendor is unable to meet the required level of cleaning by that date, the school division has the opportunity to look at other options,” he wrote. “The date identified in the amended contract allows the school division time to implement a new direction if needed.”

Based on the contractor’s performance to date, as noted in monthly inspection reports compiled since the start of the 2016-17 school year, SSC could be hard-pressed to satisfy the school system’s demands.

Under the terms of its contract with Chesterfield County Public Schools, the company is required to maintain the buildings to a standard of “ordinary tidiness,” as defined by the Association of Physical Plant Administrators.

“Ordinary tidiness” is the second of five levels of cleanliness in APPA guidelines. Level 1 is “orderly spotlessness” and level 5 is “unkempt neglect.”

As of March, SSC had been cited for dozens of instances of “significant non-performance” and assessed more than $315,000 in penalties over the prior six months.

Since taking office in January 2016, School Board members Javaid Siddiqi (now the board’s chairman) and Rob Thompson have made little attempt to conceal their dissatisfaction with the contractor’s work.

After just four months on the board, Thompson told SSC officials it was already obvious the company was “nowhere near” meeting the performance standard specified in its nearly $12 million annual contract.

If SSC fails to meet the new standards, bringing custodial work back in-house won’t be easy for a school system with 60,000 students and nearly 7,000 employees.

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

Chris Sorensen, assistant superintendent for finance, claimed the school system had saved more than $7 million over a three-year period from outsourcing custodial services to SSC.

That did little to mollify citizens who have criticized the privatization initiative since it was launched with a different contractor in 2014.

School officials began discussing the possibility of outsourcing custodial services in February of that year. In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, then-Superintendent Marcus Newsome estimated that a pilot outsourcing program could save the school system $1.5 million annually.

At the time, Newsome cautioned that while outsourcing school custodians “may be less expensive, the quality and level of service may also be lower.”

GCA Services Group was selected to take over custodial operations at eight local schools: Clover Hill, L.C. Bird and Manchester high schools; Bailey Bridge and Providence middle schools; Swift Creek and Elizabeth Scott elementary schools; and the new Career and Technical Center on Hull Street.

By the end of the 2015-16 school year, the school system had logged nearly 200 complaints about the contractor’s work. 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 Chesterfield residents pleaded with the School Board to abandon the outsourcing program before conditions deteriorated further, 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 management of custodial services at 36 schools.

The contract was expanded last year to cover 71 school facilities.

More than 450 custodians have lost their jobs – and the accompanying health and retirement benefits – with the school system since 2014.

But Carrie Coyner, one of the two current School Board members who originally voted to outsource custodians, defended the board’s action as necessary to devote a higher percentage of the school system’s financial resources to its essential function.

“It was a difficult decision, but it was a decision made for the long term,” she said in February 2015. “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.”

When Coyner and Dianne Smith were first elected to the School Board in 2011, funding was at a premium for the school system, which was still slowly recovering from deep local and state recession-era budget cuts.

As the economy stabilized, however, the school system’s budget has increased significantly over the past five years.

According to Sorensen, Chesterfield County Public Schools ended fiscal year 2017 with an operating surplus of approximately $15.2 million.

The custodial outsourcing initiative also has been a major public relations problem. Siddiqi acknowledged that last year when he said he didn’t want to “be the face of owning this for Midlothian.”

Siddiqi and other School Board members have insisted on multiple occasions that they would never settle for unclean schools in exchange for saving money.

The new amendment to SSC’s contract certainly requires cleaner schools. If the company doesn’t hit its performance threshold by Nov. 30, the school system would have seven months to rebuild its custodial services department – and allocate funding for salaries and benefits in the fiscal year 2019 budget – before the current agreement expires.

Vallen Emery, regional vice president for SSC, failed to respond to an interview request from the Observer.

Both Siddiqi and Lane were out of town last week and unavailable for comment. ¦

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