Purpled Reigned at the April USD 259 School Board meetings with district custodians and their supporters packing the seats. Sporting their purple Service Employee International Union Local 513 t-shirt’s the respectful but large group was there to make a point to district leaders – don’t balance your budget by outsourcing our jobs. 

Thanks to a change in formula that significantly decreased funding from the State of Kansas, many of the state’s school districts are struggling to plug a major hold in their budget. Superintendent Bob Allison has put a buffet of possible cuts on the table for the board’s consideration; one of those cuts is outsourcing the district’s janitorial services. 

In a school district with a large minority enrollment, the custodian staff is the one group of district employees that looks like the students. Of the just over 300 custodians in the district, 34% are African American, and 18% are Hispanic. Compare that to the teaching staff that is less than 5% African American, and you can see the major impact the elimination of the custodial staff would have on the diversity of the district’s staff. 

While Superintendent Allison hasn’t made a firm recommendation to outsource the district’s custodial services, the possibility has been quietly whispered for years. Outsourcing of public services has been a growing national trend and the district outsourced its transportation services years ago.

Outsourcing of school custodial services moved on the radar in 2003 when several large national janitorial companies began targeting school districts. Since they are often stressed economically and because of their size, urban school districts have been a major target for these companies. 

These companies typically get school leader’s attention by promising to cut their costs by up to 30%. They proposed delivering these savings based in part on “economics of scale,” they’re bigger and can buy supplies and equipment for less. However, retired SEIU business representative Harold Schlechtweg, says the companies can’t reach their savings goal on supplies only. To reach their goals, they cut staff, cut wages and cut benefits. 

“They initially hire he existing workforce, because they can’t find 300 people. But they cut them $2-6 per hour immediately,” says Schlechtweg. “They turn people who have middle class incomes into the working poor.”

With health care, paid vacation, sick leave, KPERS retirement and an upward mobility track into supervision, a position on the district’s custodial staff is often a career position. With a starting pay of $12 per hour and an average pay of $14 per hour, these positions provide the African-Americans employees a rare path to middle class perks like home-ownership. 

The private companies have a totally different view about their custodial staff says Schlechtweg. They see the positions as a starter job, hire young inexperienced works, pay them a low hourly wage and give them few if any benefits. They expect and have a great deal of turnover. While they initially hire the existing staff, with low on the job morale and an almost outright push out the door, the older and higher paid employees typically don’t around for long.

“Personnel were being terminated right and left, for minor violations, frightening long-term loyal personnel,” wrote Mike Keating, a former Blue Valley (Johnson County, KS) custodial staff. After living through the transition to a private company in the 1980’s Keating wrote a letter to the Wichita Eagle editor, proclaiming “nothing good will come from moving building custodial and maintenance services to privatization.”

“The contractor had actually depleted us to skeletal staffing at the buildings, ad was picking up dregs off of the street to work in open jobs,” Keating continued. “Turnover was rampant.”

Teachers vs Custodians 

Schlechtweg says he’s getting push back from some areas where he least expected it. Taking what he sees as an either-or-approach, “People are saying, ‘the kids have to get educated.’” 

It’s an approach that positions custodians against teachers. 

“The assumption that we just want to keep teachers and let other go, that’s not true,” says School Board President Betty Arnold. “It has absolutely nothing to do with people not appreciating the job of our custodial crews. We are looking at every nook and cranny of where we can save dollars.”

While the school board says blame the Kansas Legislature for the problem, Schlechtweg agrees the legislature may be the cause of the problem but he can’t lose sight of the fact that how the local budget is balanced is totally up to the school board. 

“We don’t see the board as our enemy. They’re not recommending this now, but we want to make sure they don’t act on a one-sided presentation; that they understand the value added by the custodians isn’t always measurable in dollars and cents,” observes Schlechtweg.

He points out custodians are a vital part of their school’s team and provide numerous “intangibles” that improve the educational experience of children in the school.

Since they work directly for the principal, he can easily pull them from one task to something else that might “come up.” With a contractor, that relationship disappears with special projects requiring a work order and the principal forced to direct requests to contract supervisors instead of to the workers. 

“Our pre-privatization custodians were really members of our school’s community. They wore (school) gear, attended athletic events, and formed relationships with teachers and students,” wrote a Chicago, IL public school principal. Chicago schools outsourced their custodial services in February 2015 and things didn’t go well, and by the fall of 2015, complaints about filthy schools by both principals and teachers were piling up. 

Instead of revolving employees, “students and staff felt safe because they knew who to expect on site before and after school hours, and in bathrooms and in other areas where safety must be a priority, wrote another Chicago principal. 

In addition, custodians form close relationships with the students with the students often sharing things with the custodian instead of the teacher.

“We support the relationship our custodians have with the students. Those are not things that go unnoticed,” assured Arnold. 

Cutting any employees will be a tough decision to make, she says, but she admits to being particularly concerned about cutting custodians who she recognizes would have a more difficult time finding comparable positions. 

“They (custodians) have served us well, in spite of not being able to get cost of living increases.”

She also gave praises to the SEIU, saying they’ve been very respectful. 

“They appreciate the position the board is in, bu they want to remind us that they have been good employees of the district as well and I certainly appreciate that.” ••

Diversity of USD 259 Staff

Of all USD 259 employee groups, the service staff most closely reflects the diversity of the district’s student body. If they’re eliminated, the diversity of the district’s staff would be seriously compromised and the loss of these 300+ middle class employees will have a negative impact on minority communities, says the Service Employee Industry Union representatives. 

Service Workers (includes food and custodial staff)

All : 467; 100%

White : 179; 38.24%

Black : 195; 41.76%

Hispanic : 66; 14.13%

Other : 27; 5.78%


All : 3327; 100%

White : 2850; 85.66%

Black : 158; 4.75%

Hispanic : 179; 5.38%

Other : 140; 4.21%

Numbers are from USD 259 EEO-5 Job Analysis, run date 06/10/2014.

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