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New York Board And Custodians Forge New Pact

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For most of the past year, New York City's board of education has locked horns with its custodians' union, whose members have almost total control over the maintenance and operations of the system's 974 buildings.

The board faced intense political and community pressure to wrest concessions from the powerful union, and the negotiations were widely viewed as a test of the board's ability to devise a new solution to one of the system's most serious and longstanding problems.

The two sides finally achieved a tentative agreement May 19 that pleases some, but not all, of the board's critics. It is, in the words of the board's president, Robert F. Wagner Jr., "historic, but not revolutionary.''

The new pact will expand the duties of the custodial force and make it easier for the board and community groups to use the schools outside of the normal hours of operation.

And--for the first time--it gives principals some authority over the custodians by granting them a role in custodial evaluations.

But it falls far short, critics argue, of bringing the highly paid and virtually autonomous custodial workforce more directly under the control of the school district's administrators.

New York City's custodians do not fit the image of the uniformed janitors whose keys jangle as they sweep the halls between classes.

They are, in essence, independent contractors who hire and supervise the staff that does the actual cleaning and maintenance work in the city's generally massive school buildings. They also control the school's maintenance budget, and end up owning the equipment that they choose to buy with school funds to carry out their duties.

A report released earlier this year by a city watchdog group concluded that "Aside from Buffalo, New York City is the only major school system in the state, if not the country, that treats its custodians as independent contractors.''

"The major distinction between the two systems is the quality of services provided,'' according to a report by the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition of 26 parent and civic groups that monitor the city's schools. "In Buffalo, the superintendent raves about the plant division, while the condition of New York City's schools is under constant criticism from all fronts.''

Media reports during the contract negotiations described schools where toilet paper had become a rare commodity, where graffiti filled the spaces between torn and crumbling plaster, and where principals felt powerless to build the type of positive climate that is increasingly recognized as key to a school's success with its pupils.

"If a principal has the responsibility and accountability for running his school he ought to have the authority to do it also,'' said Ted Elsberg, president of the principal's union, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators.

Fees for Evening Hours

Perhaps no area of the custodians' power in New York City has generated more widespread criticism than the fees they were permitted to levy on school and community groups using the schools after hours.

Critics charged that the fees consumed more than a third of the budget of an after-school program designed to ease racial tensions, and more than a third of the profits of some weekend fundraisers.

As a result, the annual pay of New York City's custodians averages between $40,000 and $70,000, and custodians in the largest schools can potentially earn as much as $100,000 by assuming the maximum allowable additional duties.

In the tentative contract, the custodians' union agreed to abolish the so-called "opening fees'' during late-afternoon hours and for one night a week, and to reduce the fees charged at other times.

In return, the board included a $5,900 increase in the base pay of the custodians, an amount equivalent to the average amount each custodian formerly earned from the opening fees. At the same time, the union agreed to cut the starting salary of new custodians from $49,053 to $34,337.

A new teacher in New York City earns $21,650.

The new agreement, which replaces a contract that expired last June, also includes salary increases of almost 5 percent in each of the three years of the contract.

Charles Haughey, president of the union, did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Mr. Wagner defended the custodial pay scale, which allows some custodians to earn more than principals, by saying that the custodians "manage very significant facilities with a good number of employees and lots of problems.''

The Educational Priorities Panel's survey of nine other large urban school systems found that the highest-paid custodians in other cities earned $30,000, "less than half of what a senior custodian earns while managing one large school in New York City.''

"If somebody was out to break this union and institute a totally different system, then this contract doesn't look so good,'' said Stanley S. Litow, executive director of the watchdog coalition.

"If, on the other hand, they were not interested in major structural change, then the board probably did all right at the bargaining table.''

'Managers' in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, where Mayor Tom Bradley has proposed offering after-school programs in all of the city's schools, the district administration can simply pay the custodians at an hourly rate for their extra work, according to William T. Price 3rd, chief executive officer of Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the district's custodial workers.

The system "seems to work pretty well,'' he said, except that in some schools, "they haven't increased the number of [custodians] to coincide with the increase in hours.''

Unlike New York City, however, plant managers who supervise each school in Los Angeles are not part of the collective-bargaining unit.

Instead, under a California Supreme Court ruling, the plant managers are board employees and are considered part of management, said Robert Hunt, secretary-treasurer of Local 347 of the Service Employees International Union.

Local 347, which represents some of the Los Angeles managers, "can meet with, give proposals to, and discuss things with the board,'' he said, "but we can't bargain.''

One of the most highly touted changes in the new New York City contract will shift the designation of the custodians' area supervisors from union employees to management.

Earlier efforts by the board to have the supervisors' classifications changed were overruled by New York State's public-employee-relations board. Thus, in New York, fully two more levels of custodial managers were union employees than is the case in Los Angeles.

Because the area supervisors were union employees, and thus closely allied with the custodians they were managing, "when the system didn't work, there was almost nothing we could do about it,'' said Mr. Wagner, the board president.

Bargaining Power

New York City's system of custodial supervision "isn't typical at all,'' said Santee D. Ruffin, director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Still, he pointed out, most urban school principals have little say in directing custodial services in their buildings, unless they have custodians who are willing to ignore union rules to get needed work done.

Many school boards initially gave too much authority to their employee unions, including custodians, he said, because "they weren't used to collective bargaining and negotiating contracts.''

Once such contracts are in place, he said, they can be extremely difficult to change.

Such has proven the case in Seattle, where a pilot project in school-based management has had to proceed without granting principals any new authority over their custodians.

"The principals don't even have the ability to give input into the selection of their custodians,'' said Robert J. Griffin, manager of operations for the Seattle Public Schools. "The computer tells them who they get, based largely on seniority.''

Dale I. Daugharty, business manager of Local 609 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said he opposed the idea of giving principals greater control over custodians because "they'll use that as another way for educators to raid the budget of maintenance and facilities,'' he said.

He described a visit to a school in a nearby district where "the food-service lady was teaching a reading class, the custodian was doing her dishes, and the secretary was teaching another kid how to read.''

"We don't want to get into that kind of situation here,'' he said.

Principals: 'Not Sure'

Although the Seattle union's opposition played a major role in preventing school-based custodial supervision in the seven pilot schools, the proposal also failed to gain support among some of the principals who were involved in discussions about the proposal.

"Some principals were saying, 'We're not too sure we want to take this on,''' said Nan N. Stavnshoj, a project administrator for the district who has been monitoring the school-based-management experiment.

"There were too many unanswered questions for both sides,'' she said.

Several experts interviewed last week noted that the current system for supervising custodians used in many districts rests on the assumption that principals cannot be expected to master the technical details necessary to supervise custodial services.

"Definitely, some don't want to bother with it at all,'' said Edward N. James Jr. principal of the Alki Elementary School in Seattle. "They don't feel they have time for stuff like that.''

If principals establish good working relations with their custodians, and if the central office provides technical assistance, he said, supervising the condition of the building "doesn't take that much time.''

Principals have a major stake in their custodians' performance, he added, because "if everything's done well, the teachers are happy, but if it's not done well the school's climate is endangered.''

'Ultimate Responsibility'

Mr. Santee of NASSP also acknowledged that many principals "wouldn't have the slightest idea of what's involved'' in maintaining a building. But he noted that managers in other fields are not expected to master the details of their employees' expertise.

"It's just ridiculous,'' he said, for principals to have the "ultimate responsibility'' for a school's performance without being able to manage and supervise the entire staff.

Several of the reform proposals developed for the Chicago Public Schools are based on this same premise, and would grant principals control over all staff working in their buildings.

Under the current system in Chicago, "when parents say that their school needs improvement in a certain area, the principals say, 'It's out of my hands,''' said Patrick J. Bower, an organizer with Save Our Schools/Save Our City, a community organization that advocates a stronger role for parents in the governance of schools. "Parents call the central office and get no response, because the maintenance people know the principal has no influence on their jobs.''

"People want to see principals held accountable,'' he added, "but the only way to do it is if they have sufficient authority.''

But the Chicago custodians' union has vowed to fight any such changes, even though the issue is likely to be taken out of their hands by the state legislature.

Giving principals the authority to hire and fire custodians "is not going to make Johnny read any better,'' said Donald J. McCue, president of Local 143 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents Chicago's custodians.

"No one can answer the logical question of how this is going to add to effective managment,'' he said. "The principals can't handle the responsibilities they've got today.''

Power in Broward County

One of the nation's largest school systems, the Broward County Public Schools, allows principals virtually full discretion in the hiring, disciplining, and firing of custodians and all other building staff members, including teachers.

School-based management, including wide latitude in budget matters, has been operating in Broward County for nearly a decade, according to Damian Huttenhoff, an assistant superintendent and former director of employee relations in the district.

The custodians are covered by a contract that governs their terms and working conditions and that allows them to file a grievance if they feel they have been passed over for a less-qualified candidate.

"We've never gone to arbitration on a nonselection,'' he said.

The district provides training for principals on interviewing techniques and contract details, he added.

"Our principals have the right to develop programs for their specific community,'' Mr. Huttenhoff said. "We're not staffed heavily at the district level.''

The Dade County Public Schools, which have a custodial system similar to Broward County's, have also begun implementing a school-based management system in some schools that allows principals to replace custodians who resign with instructional aides or other staff.

"In some schools, custodians serve on the main shared-decisionmaking group, because one of the most important aspects of a school is its appearance,'' noted Gerald O. Dreyfuss, the assistant superintendent in charge of the school-based management project in Dade County.

"Giving the custodians a say makes them feel they are part of an overall school family,'' said Mr. Dreyfuss. "Caring for the school becomes more than a job--it becomes just like their own home.''

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