By Sue Moore
A crowd of caring parents and teachers, mostly from Indian Lake School, attended the Vicksburg School Board meeting in May to protest contracting out the school district’s custodial services. They didn’t get their wish.
The administration proposal, a hybrid model to save money by contracting out custodial positions as employees leave, eventually was voted in with a three-to-two vote—one of the few times the school board has had a split vote in many years. Wil Emmert and Carol Lohman cast the two no votes. Trustees Tina Forsyth and Deborah Harsha were absent.
Members of the audience made impassioned but dignified pleas to keep the current custodians, citing safety concerns. They also made a case for the caring and nurturing of kids that the current custodian staff displays every day in the five district school buildings.
In the end, the school board chose to keep the current staff, but replace departing custodians with a Grand Rapids contracting firm. Steve Goss, assistant superintendent, explained the choices:
- Do nothing, which would forego cost savings.
- A hybrid model, the one adopted by the board, to protect the current staff and replace through attrition. This option would lead to a small savings in the short term, but increasing over the long term.
- Contract with an outside firm for a complete change in staffing that would save an estimated $150,000 per year..
Goss explained that the custodial union had made it possible to select the second option by accepting a letter of agreement to a change in the contract. “It is the best outcome we can possibly have. There won’t be as much of a savings in the first years, but we are erring on the side of our valued employees. The district has not asked for any financial concessions from the current staff. who will keep their current rate of pay and benefits. It will be a win/win for everyone,” Goss said.
Superintendent Charlie Glaes told the audience that it comes down to a limited amount of resources available to the district. “We have to use them wisely so we continue to offer our students the programs they will need [for their future life’s work].”
Some in the audience asked about background checks, voicing doubt that they would be as thorough as those performed now. Goss reassured the speakers that outsourced employees are legally required to undergo the same FBI criminal background check as all school employees, and that no workers would be allowed to enter school premises before that background check is completed.
That didn’t deter concerns of parents who wanted to be sure that their children would not be in danger from some bad actors who would be the only applicants for jobs that pay between $9 to $10 per hour.
“You, the board, are worried about the money, but what about the child?” one asked.
Goss explained that the school staff had completely vetted the Grand Rapids company. “We have built on what other schools in Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency (KRESA) have already experienced with outsourcing. The contract with the new provider is tightly written to take into account all of these various concerns.”
“Our custodians care about our kids,” one teacher exclaimed. “They love our kids and bring smiles to their faces. Who will take care of them if they are not part of our community? Who will be responsible?” Another teacher was concerned about strangers in the buildings, citing the trustworthiness of the current custodians. “They go above and beyond the call of duty.”
Skip Knowles, school board president, explained that money from the recent special education millage only goes to make up for what has been used for general education. “That was not a windfall. We have to look everywhere for savings. There is no extra money and we are still in the hole financially. I think our buildings are clean. We respect the job our custodians are doing. We are not going backwards.”