Union rips outsourcing plan

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There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to outsourcing custodial and maintenance personnel, according to AFSCME staff representative Jeff Middleton.

“The School District of Beloit is facing a very difficult financial position which we understand and recognize. And 80 percent of this decision looks like a good idea, but it’s the 20 percent unknown which is bad,” Middleton said.

The School District of Beloit Board of Education may vote at a special meeting at 5:15 p.m. today at the Kolak Education Center, 1633 Keeler Ave., on whether to outsource custodial and maintenance personnel to a private vendor, according to Director of Personnel Services Todd Cabelka in an earlier interview.

If the school board votes to go ahead with outsourcing the services, it would take effect on July 1.

Although the potential vendor has agreed it will hire on the 55 district custodial and maintenance staff for at least five years with the same rate of pay and comparable health insurance benefits they receive from the district, Middleton stressed there really are no guarantees once the employees are working for the private vendor.

For example, he said a private company may not be required to provide just-cause in order to let someone go. At-will employees could be dismissed for any reason, and veteran and higher-paid personnel could be likely targets.

Middleton said he’s also concerned about the impact on peoples’ pensions.

“They would be going from one of the best pension programs in the country to a private 401K plan,” Middleton said.

Middleton said the biggest hit would be to the most senior people, who are being asked to give up a public pension after working 20 to 30 years for the district.

Mark Geffers, union president with the school districts Local 1475 AFSCME, AFL-CIO, is one of those senior people. He said he and the other custodial staff would be open to negotiating with the district, and even compromising if necessary, in order to cut costs and stay with the district.

Geffers said one of the motivating factors to the employees was the job security and pensions afforded them by the district. Although the pay may have been slightly lower at $12 to $15 an hour, many deeply invested themselves with the district in hopes of one day getting their pension.

“They’ve given the bulk of their professional lives to the district. Now with the stroke of a pen, it will stop being funded at the current rate,” Middleton added.

Geffers, a 22-year veteran of the district, said he knows the school buildings like the back of his hand. He even was given an award for saving a student with the heimlich maneuver.

He and Middleton are concerned about the quality of employees that may be hired on by the private firm. Although the vendor may hire on the district employees at their same rate of pay, after five years it can pay them whatever the going rate is at that time. And new employees may only earn a starting wage of $10-12 an hour, resulting in a high rate of turnover.

“Who are they going to get for $10 an hour, with limited benefits, who can pass a drug test and a background check,” Middleton asked.

With high turnover and the district not making the hiring decisions, Middleton said theft or security could also be an issue.

Middleton went on to voice concerns about contract provisions which include the private vendor getting school equipment and vehicles. He said the trucks and equipment are bought by the taxpayers and need to be put out for bid.

Once the custodial and maintenance staff are no longer public employees, Middleton also noted they would be able to legally strike which could cause significant disruption in the district. And if the district went with a new vendor due to a strike, the mowers and trucks then owned by the new vendor, would be gone.

Middleton said he commends the district for its efforts in protecting the 55 employees as best it could, but said there is a negative aspect of outsourcing that can’t be overcome.

“I would like the school board to take a serious look at the questions of outsourcing. What’s next? Should we bring in a corporation to manage the schools? Have them hire the teachers?” Middleton said. “Privatizing educational services don’t work because of the people factor. Who is going to be walking up and down these halls in the future? I don’t think public sector jobs should be outsourced to private corporations. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t,” he said.

Middleton said he understands cuts need to be made but noted the district is considering giving every student an iPad while declining to come up with the resources to pay the pensions of some of its most loyal and senior employees.

And after the $70 million referendum passed with new additions and a proposed new school, Middleton said custodial and maintenance staff will be more important than ever.

“The taxpayers will say yes to more buildings, and a nice new high school addition, and music and art and football and iPads. Will they also say yes to slashing the pensions of their most senior employees who have been cleaning and maintaining these buildings?” Middleton said. “They live here, and are taxpayers too.”

According to an earlier interview with Cabelka the outsourcing could result in around $330,000 a year in savings initially, and more savings in the long-term.

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