FPS trustees vote for custodial privatization, tentative transportation agreement

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published May 9, 2016

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FARMINGTON/FARMINGTON HILLS — Farmington Public Schools trustees voted 5-1 to outsource their custodial staff for a projected savings of $1.4 million annually, according to a school letter sent out to community members. They also voted to approve a tentative agreement with transportation union members on health care provisions 5-1 — if all bargaining units don’t agree on the terms, school officials will discuss the next step at the following school board meeting.

During a May 3 Board of Education meeting, the trustees discussed with the community that while the vote was not easy, it had to be done for financial savings.

Trustee Terri Weems was not in attendance, and Trustee Murray Kahn cast the dissenting vote on the custodial issue.

The school board voted to subcontract its custodial services starting July 1 with Flint-based DM Burr. 

“This decision was not taken lightly, as we value all of our employees and the service they provide to support the learning of our students,” Superintendent George Heitsch stated in the letter. “The projected savings of $1.4 million annually was too great for the custodial unit to overcome after the reductions that they took five years ago. This savings is necessary to address the school district’s financial challenges and to ensure that district resources are directed to the educational needs of our students.”

He added that the school district will be “adding back” some of the enrichment programs dropped last year, including literacy support and general education support in FPS elementary schools.

Heitsch also said in the letter that he hopes current custodians consider employment with DM Burr.

“It is important to note that we will continue to have high expectations from DM Burr in the duties that they will be performing in our schools,” he said.

During a Jan. 26 school board meeting, the trustees unanimously voted to receive requests for proposals from privatized transportation and custodial service companies.

FPS officials have had discussions with both bargaining units, the Custodial/Maintenance/Cafeteria Association and the Farmington Transportation Association, about the decision to potentially subcontract since then.

Lori Tunick, executive director of the Farmington Michigan Education Association, which oversees the transportation and custodial service unions in FPS, said there are about 65 custodians and roughly 70 bus drivers.

“For the custodial group, we’re disappointed. We’re disappointed that the board had to take this action based on inadequate funding to public schools,” she said. 

During the May 3 meeting, many community members discussed their thoughts opposing outsourcing, including Farmington Hills resident Tammy Levitan, who described the close bond she has with an FPS employee.

“We have a groundskeeper at Harrison who I have been associated with since 2004,” she said. “I have him on my speed dial on my personal phone. So if there is anything that is needed in the concession stand, or if I need to let him know I am coming to the back gate to unload supplies, he has that gate open for me. If we privatize, I’m not going to have that. And neither will the other parent volunteers.”

Kurt Schmidt, of Farmington Hills, has lived in the city for 15 years and worked as a bus driver for seven of those years. He said before the vote that he urged the trustees to vote no.

“This job has afforded me the opportunity, not only to drive, supervise my children and their friends’ round-trip from school and field trips, but to volunteer for their extracurricular activities,” Schmidt said. “I believe it takes a community to raise and protect our children. … We‘re wondering if a private employee would protect our children as fiercely as we would, or would they just abandon our children, screaming ‘they don’t pay me enough for this.’”

Trustee Jessica Cummings said the school board has heard from many community members about concerns regarding privatization savings, quality and safety, and she asked Heitsch to discuss those public comments.

“Are there really going to be savings for the district?” she asked Heitsch.

“This is a very complicated issue for the system and for employees,” he said, adding that there are safety procedures put in place with the private contractors that “mimic and mirror” the safety procedures that public school employees currently go through, including background checks, fingerprinting and more.

He said the savings that are in excess of $1 million are not the fault of employees.

“Much of it has to do with funding in the state of Michigan and the current obligation that we all pay to the state of Michigan,” Heitsch said.

Trustee David Turner asked if every financial potential had been examined through the bargaining process to close the gap between the projected savings and what can be delivered at the negotiating table.

“We have been bargaining on a regular basis attempting to do that,” Heitsch said. “They (unions) made a valiant effort and brought a proposal to us that helped, but didn’t close that gap wide enough.”

Heitsch said that the union groups took “significant concessions” to close the gap four or five years ago. 

“It had already leaned out their expenses in their unit significantly,” Heitsch said. “There is not much left for them to offer us in the way of concessions.”

School board President Howard Wallach said he knows that many efforts were made across various bargaining units to try to develop another plan.

“It just hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t look like it can happen,” he said.

Trustee Sheilah Clay said the decision was hard.

“This is very, very difficult for us, because you’re a part of this community,” she said of the custodial employees. “I want to thank you … for the love, the dedication, the care that you gave and have given to all of the children and the teachers in the buildings in this district.” 

Currently, FPS officials are working through a ratification process with the bargaining units on health care. If the health care contingency is not agreed upon soon, a meeting with all parties will take place at the next FPS school board meeting.

Wallach was the lone dissenting vote.

Wallach said that he voted “no” because an original proposal from administrators would have made the vote self-effective, meaning that if a union did not ratify health care provisions, then it would go to privatization.

“I thought that was a more effective way of resolving this,” Wallach said. “It would be a two-step process the way the board decided to proceed. I wanted it to be a one-step process … not drag it out. We’re in very difficult economic times in funding public education.” 

Tunick said that at no point in time were the bargaining units notified about the privatization being contingent upon other unions agreeing on the health care package.

“We are confused and disappointed that the board had originally made this resolution to automatically get rid of the transportation group if the teachers and (other union groups) didn’t ratify their portion of the health care (package). We are very grateful that the board amended the resolution to get rid of the automatic trigger.”

Khan thanked everyone in the transportation department for making concessions. 

“I think people have made such sacrifices, that to have an automatic dissolution of that contract is not fair to them that other bargaining groups haven’t agreed by a certain date,” he said. 

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