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2017-10-04 / Featured / Front Page

School system weighs options for custodial work

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Having determined that its current custodial contract cannot deliver an acceptable standard of cleanliness, the school system is evaluating several alternatives for managing custodial services during the 2018-19 school year and beyond.

Its options include continuing to outsource custodians, but under a new contract; hiring day porters to handle light duties and continuing to outsource more labor-intensive after-school cleaning; or bringing the entire custodial function back in-house with a combination of full- and part-time employees.

There’s a catch, though: each option likely would require millions in additional funding to implement.

According to a working paper prepared for Superintendent James Lane by Nita Mensia-Joseph, the school system’s chief operations officer, the five options under consideration are estimated to cost between $15.7 million and $27.8 million per year.

“I think we have to price out all those options so we can see what makes sense financially,” Lane told members of the County-Schools Liaison Committee during a recent meeting.

Under the terms of an annual agreement that expires June 30, 2018, Chesterfield County Public Schools will pay SSC Service Solutions about $12 million for providing custodial services at 65 school buildings.

The school system’s budget for custodial services was $17 million in fiscal year 2014 – the last year it directly managed its entire fleet of custodians.

The School Board began outsourcing custodial services during the 2014-15 school year, hoping to save money in operations that could then be directed into the classroom.

Last September, just two months after he succeeded Marcus Newsome as superintendent, Lane said it would be “very difficult” for the school system to abandon privatization because of the money it was saving.

Lane struck a far different tone in his remarks to the Liaison Committee, acknowledging it’s time for the school system to “try something different.”

“Nobody wanted outsourcing to work more than me because of the cost savings, but at the end of the day, we’re not going to allow our schools to not be [cleaned] at a standard that our citizens and parents expect,” he said.

After logging hundreds of complaints about its first custodial contractor, the school system re-bid the contract in 2015 and selected SSC, a Tennessee based subsidiary of multibillion-dollar British conglomerate Compass Group.

The school system’s monthly inspection reports suggest the level of cleaning in county schools hasn’t improved much, if at all, since then.

Under the terms of its contract with Chesterfield County Public Schools, SSC 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.”

The contract permits the school system to deduct 5 percent from the company’s monthly invoice for each building in which it fails to meet the APPA-2 threshold in three separate inspections.

SSC was assessed more than $400,000 in such “charge-back” penalties during the 2016-17 school year, Mensia-Joseph said.

Mensia-Joseph’s working paper noted that only 16 percent of the school buildings cleaned by SSC “met the desired level of cleanliness” over that period.

SSC officials have suggested that the custodial contract as currently written makes it impossible for the company to maintain the staffing levels required to meet that standard while still hitting profit targets.

In a May 4 letter to Lane, SSC president Seth Ferriell claimed that doing so would cost the school system an additional $200,000 per month “to be financially viable” for the company.

That would add $2.4 million to SSC’s annual contract and increase its total payment to $14.4 million. It would also significantly reduce the school system’s savings, the primary objective of outsourcing custodial work.

The school system didn’t agree to such an increase in the contract that took effect July 1. It did, however, include a clause that requires SSC to achieve and maintain the APPA-2 standard in 90 percent of school facilities by Nov. 30 to secure renewal of the agreement in July 2018.

Vallen Emery, a regional vice president for SSC, wrote to the county’s purchasing director, Keith Gagnon, on Aug. 7 and requested that the county initiate a request for proposals this fall for a new contract that would take effect Jan. 1, 2018, and more accurately reflect the school system’s service needs.

“Under the current structure, we have little confidence that this working relationship will get any better,” he wrote.

During the Liaison Committee meeting, Midlothian Supervisor Leslie Haley asked Lane about SSC’s claim that the school system significantly underbid the contract.

“We signed the contract that both parties agreed to and we’re going to hold them to the contract that is in place,” Lane replied.

As permitted in the agreement, the school system billed SSC for charges incurred when it brought in additional cleaning crews in late August to “augment” the company’s custodians.

After SSC failed to meet an Aug. 24 deadline for completing its summer cleaning requirements, the county contracted with another company, Golden Gate Service Inc., to provide custodians as part of a 72-hour school cleaning blitz.

According to Tim Bullis, a spokesman for the school system, deploying the additional custodians cost $35,000.

“I hope we don’t have to augment all year, but we’re prepared to do so if it comes to that,” Lane said, noting that any additional charges also will be passed along to SSC.

“I think a conversation we’ll have all year long with the School Board, especially as we get into the budget cycle, is how we can resolve the custodial issue for the long run so we don’t have these problems anymore,” he added. 

Clarification: Earlier print and online versions of this story referenced a “confidential working paper” prepared for Superintendent James Lane outlining options for custodial work. The paper lost its confidential status on Aug. 9 following the completion of a new contract with SSC Service Solutions, and the paper’s release to a citizen via a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.

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