By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Over the past few weeks, a number of Montgomery Public Schools officials have questioned how the Alabama State Department of Education plans to pay for several high-salaried administrators hired to work in MPS’ central office.
MPS custodians believe it’s by eliminating them – the lowest paid employees on the payroll.
At a meeting this week at the Alabama Education Association, a group of MPS custodians gathered to discuss recent actions by officials from ALSDE that the custodians believe is leading to layoffs and a privatization of the district’s custodial services.
“I don’t know how they can justify doing this – keeping all the same people at the top but cutting at the bottom,” said Felix Murrell, who works in the district’s professional services center. “It’s just wrong.”
MPS spokesman Tom Salter said the state has no plans to cut the custodians and that a cost analysis found it was better to keep the current custodial staff instead of seeking to contract with an outside company.
But AEA officials and custodial workers sense something is amiss. They say custodians are being shuffled around the district now and there’s a plan to move them all to a centralized location. That’s a significant change, since custodians are typically assigned to a school and supervised by the principal or staff at those schools.
Under a new plan, the custodians would be supervised by the logistics department and could be moved around more freely to schools where needs might be greater.
“That sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t take into consideration what the reality is for these folks,” said Montgomery UniServ Director Lynn Pettway. “If you have a custodian who works at Carver High and lives nearby, but you determine that he needs to go to Park Crossing, that’s a difference of $40-$50 per month, and with what they’re making, it’s crushing.”
The move itself isn’t necessarily the biggest issue, however. It’s what it signifies.
MPS custodians and AEA officials believe it’s part of a pattern meant to push custodians into quitting so the district can privatize its custodial services without the bad PR of firing low-paid locals to do so.
They’ve already dabbled in the private services area, and in deception.
MPS custodians say they weren’t offered an opportunity to work this summer, when ALSDE contracted with an outside vendor to clean less than half the schools at a cost of more than $765,000.
That contradicts statements from state and MPS officials, who told media outlets that MPS custodians were first offered the opportunity to handle the work but the project had to be sent to a private company when there was little interest from the custodians. At the meeting at AEA, dozens of custodians said they never knew of the opportunity.
Asked about the custodians’ statement, Salter offered a different answer from the one given earlier by other MPS officials.
“When the state decided to do the project, it was determined that many of our custodians already had summer jobs,” Salter said. “It was doubtful we could get enough in place to do the work that was needed in the time allowed.”
Salter said 30 MPS custodians (out of 210) were hired to work the summer, and that group of 30 managed to clean 32 schools. And since most MPS custodians earn less than $25,000 for their 9-month contract, it’s unlikely that their costs came close to the $765,000 paid to Cintas to clean 25 schools.
Another reason given by school officials for contracting with Cintas was the short turnaround time – all of the work had to be completed within a month before school started.
But Salter also revealed that wasn’t true. In answering a question about complaints many teachers had with dirty classrooms and bathrooms, Salter said it was unfair to judge the job Cintas did because it’s not complete yet.
“Their plan was to do part of the work prior to the opening of school and then complete the work in the coming weeks,” Salter said. “Until the work is complete, we cannot judge their level of success.”
But the custodians and teachers have. Numerous teachers and principals in schools cleaned by the Cintas teams said they had to request that MPS custodians go in behind Cintas and re-clean. One teacher said she found a Cintas employee asleep in her classroom. Others said their classrooms were skipped altogether.
“It was a disaster,” said an MPS teacher who asked not to be named. “It was obvious that it was a rush job and there was no reason for us to pay that much money for it.”
The funds to pay for the cleaning came from MPS’ Child Nutrition Program.