In response to public concerns aired at last Thursday's meeting, the board of education voted to retain 13 members of the district's in-house custodial staff who had been slated for layoffs and put the expansion of the district's custodial outsourcing efforts on hold.
The primary issues raised by the dozens of students, teachers and residents who packed the Edison School gymnasium to protest the planned layoffs were the perceived effects on safety and cleanliness that outsourcing custodians would have on the schools.
"Me and my peers are at school day and night for prom set up, for different meetings, we’re always there – 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, sometimes even 11 o’clock," high school student Lauren Rosenfeld said, speaking on behalf of the district's custodians. "And when we’re there late at night, we feel comfortable walking around our halls, when it’s pretty much us and the custodians...With new custodians and people that aren’t directly tied to the school, we would not have that feeling."
Teachers' Union president Gene Kuffel followed Rosenfeld's comment by asking the board to consider the parents in the district.
"If that was my daughter and I heard this plea, how do I do that? How do I send her in to a building of strangers?" he asked the board.
Board president Michael Rosenberg responded to the public concern over safety by reiterating that the same security procedures are in place for anyone who enters one of the district's schools, and added that a certificated teacher should always be present with students who stay after school.
"I don’t buy the safety thing," he said. "Because if I have students in the building, they are under the supervision of a certificated teacher. That’s what the certificated teacher gets paid to do. That’s why they get a stipend for doing after-school activities.”
Rosenberg said he was offended by the suggestion that he or any of the board members would jeopardize the safety of district students.
"I take offense that someone could tell me that I am jeopardizing the safety of the kids in this community, because that’s why I’m here. That’s why I sit on this board," he said. "I ran for the board of education because I care about the kids in this community. Kids first. Teachers second. Support staff third.”
Eugene Packer, a teacher and fencing coach at the high school, said he'd heard horror stories about other districts that had outsourced custodians and had the contracted custodians steal equipment from the schools and sometimes even send their unvetted relatives into schools to work in their stead.
He said he trusted the district's current custodians enough to leave his classroom drawers or cabinets unlocked over night.
"I am not making any statement in regard to the potential honesty or dishonesty of the people we are going to hire," Packer said. "I am making a statement, however, about the honesty of the people that we have in our employ at this time...I trust that custodians and other staff at the high school are going to be completely reliable in being just as careful about the safety of those kids as I am."
Multiple teachers also expressed concern about the decrease in cleanliness they said they had witnessed at the middle schools since Aramark custodians took over some shifts there this year.
Rosenberg replied that it was the first time he'd heard any such concerns about the job Aramark was doing and said the board had received nothing but positive reports from the monitoring company the district hired to oversee and evaluate Aramark's performance.
"I asked again today if our principals at the middle schools have gotten any complaints from the teachers about the cleanliness of the buildings," he said. "And the answer is 'no.'"
Both Rosenberg and board member John Mancinelli offered their thanks to the district's custodians but said it was their contention that students and teachers always came before support staff.
"It’s not that I don’t value you, and I don’t think you’re part of the community," Mancinelli said. "But when you’re in a squeeze, you’ve got to think outside the box and you’ve got to think about how do you solve the problem of staying alive and productive. That’s our job.”
Rosenberg said that if custodians are outsourced, they would be able to re-apply for their jobs through Aramark, but that they would not receive preferential hiring status and their pay would likely be at least 50 percent less than their current salaries. He said they would receive health benefits through Aramark, but was not sure how those benefits compared to the benefits unionized employees receive.
What do you think of the custodial outsourcing issue? Would you fear for the safety of Fair Lawn's school children if the schools hired only contracted custodians?