Avon Grove plan to outsource custodial jobs angers workers

Posted: June 03, 2014

The Avon Grove School District plans to outsource its 26 custodian jobs next school year as part of a cost-saving plan, and longtime workers who will lose pensions and some benefits - and maybe their jobs - are angry.

Within the next 15 years, most school districts facing tightening budgets are likely to outsource services that do not directly educate students, said Joseph O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which serves Chester County's 12 school districts and is brokering Avon Grove's outsourcing.

O'Brien said the majority of districts in the county have considered such moves to save money in one of the only areas where there is flexibility.

"You look at everything that's not vital to the education process" to cut, he said. "This is not personal. We're in the education business."

The Octorara Area School District has been working with the Intermediate Unit to outsource the management of its buildings for about a year.

At a recent school board meeting, the Avon Grove district, which manages 5,116 students and four schools, approved a contract with the Intermediate Unit as part of an $82 million proposed budget for next school year. It said outsourcing the custodians' jobs would reduce yearly costs by about $700,000.

Outsourcing in the region is not limited to nonteaching jobs. The Kennett Square Consolidated School District said it outsourced its instructional and teaching assistants last year to save the district $500,000 per year.

Zeek Weil, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said he wants to work with the school board to find savings elsewhere and keep the district jobs in Avon Grove. He said the union may seek a legal remedy as well.

"We're going to pursue anything and everything that's allowed under the law to keep those jobs in-house," Weil said.

The 26 workers will be able to apply for 28 new custodial positions with the ServiceMaster Co., the Memphis-based company the IU hired to take over custodial services. O'Brien said that he did not know what the pay would be for those jobs, but that there would be no more pension payments.

"Benefits definitely won't be as good as they are now," O'Brien said. School districts save a lot of money when they don't pay for pensions or benefits, he said.

It also makes current workers angry.

Lori Hammer has worked as a custodian in the Avon Grove School District for the last two decades, and said she's gotten to know hundreds of students, especially over the last six years that she has had lunch duty. Hammer, 51, figured she would work for the district until she retired. Now, she said she doesn't know what she'll do when her contract ends on June 30. But she said she is trying to stay positive as she walks through the halls of Avon Grove High School.

"The kids can see that: 'They know they're going to lose their jobs, but they're still coming into work with a smile on their face,' " Hammer said. "Inside, I feel like sitting and crying all day."

The Avon Grove Educational Support Professional Association, the 107-member union representing the custodians, secretaries, kitchen workers, aides, and other support staff, said the outsourcing plan took members by surprise and did not give the union a chance to present counterproposals. Victor Mantegna, president of the union, said members were willing to change their health plans and take pay cuts to prevent the outsourcing.

"I just think when it comes down to dollars, there are people worth a little more than that," Mantegna said. "Custodians don't make that much to begin with."

Both the state and local union said the district's plan to hire four new administrators for next school year would wipe out any financial benefit from outsourcing the custodian jobs. But the district said the two moves are not related, and it is paying for the new positions with money found from changes in programs. The new positions represent a reinvestment into the students, said M. Christopher Marchese, the district's superintendent.

"We're not unlike any other school district in the commonwealth," Marchese said, "where we have to constantly look at how we provide services across the district."


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond

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