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Building Engineers' Power Magnified in Nation's Largest School District

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Nowhere has the debate over the power and perquisites of schools' building engineers been more heated than in New York City, where the board of education is now engaged in contract negotiations with Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

For some "custodian engineers" in the nation's largest school district, the "perks" include being allowed to buy, and eventually keep for personal use, four-wheel-drive vehicles with the help of a partial subsidy from the district. These and other contract provisions have made the engineers a frequent target of public and news-media ire.

In 1988, the board of education and the union reached agreement on a contract intended to address some longstanding criticisms of the school custodial system. (See Education Week, June 1, 1988.)

But critics say there is still considerable room for improvement.

In New York City, according to a recent study done by the Hay Group, a consulting firm, the head custodian engineers in the schools function as "quasi-independent contractors."

The engineers receive a budget for each school, from which they pay themselves and hire custodial workers, who are not school-board employees.

The custodian engineers' responsibility for minor maintenance is limited, the report notes, and at the same time they have little control over major repairs performed by the school system's maintenance department.

Such a system, the report says, "has fallen far short of the ideal," because the custodian engineers cannot be held fully accountable for their schools.

Among other suggestions, the study recommended giving school principals "a significantly larger role" in defining and monitoring custodians' performance.

Not Kept Clean?

Critics of the New York City custodial system say that, aside from questions about repairs, schools are not being kept clean.

The current board policy for cleaning the schools was set during the 1970's, when the city was experiencing severe financial problems that led to cutbacks in the cleaning schedule.

Custodians are required to scrub cafeteria floors just once a week. Classrooms must be swept, dust mopped, or vacuumed every other clay. The custodial workers must mop or scrub classroom floors three times a year, unless the room is used for kindergartners, homemaking courses, or handicapped children. In such cases, the floors are to be mopped or scrubbed every other week.

John Fager, a parent activist in New York City, said the Upper West Side elementary school that his two children attended was cited several years ago by the city's health department for unsanitary conditions in the cafeteria.

"The principal said she talked to the custodian, and he said the contract requires his men to scrub the floor once a week, and that's all he's going to do," Mr. Fager recalled.

Maureen Connelly, a spokesman 'for Local 891, said the board's cleaning schedule has resulted in unfair criticism of the custodian engineers.

"The public outrage at the custodians is inappropriate and inaccurate," Ms. Connelly said. "The board of education has had a free ride."

Keeping Equipment

New York's city controller and the president of its city council also have been critical of the practice that allows school custodians to immediately keep any equipment costing less than $1,500 that is purchased out of their budgets.

The board of education subsidizes purchases of more than $1,500 by paying five-twelfths of the cost of an item. The custodians take the equipment--such as copy machines and cleaning equipment--with them from school to school. They can also keep the more expensive items, usually after three to five years.

The policy makes some custodian engineers in large schools eligible to purchase subsidized four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Ms. Connelly, the spokesman for Local 891, said the vehicles are used to remove snow and to pick up supplies and deliveries.

Custodian engineers pay seven-twelfths of the cost of the vehicles, while the school system picks up the rest. After five years, the engineers are free to keep the vehicles for their personal use. The board also subsidizes maintenance and repairs to the vehicles.

"The custodian, out of his own personal funds, pays for more than 50 percent of the cost," Ms. Connelly said. "If they want air conditioning, that's 100 percent."

But James Vlasto, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, said the vehicle purchases are likely to be an issue in the current negotiations.

"They do use the Jeeps for work," he said. "It's a matter of whether they could justify them."

The board, he added, is seeking "more productivity and more accountability'' from its custodian engineers.

"You want more work for your buck," Mr. Vlasto said. "Accountability is a crucial piece of this. Times are changing, and therefore 'free agency' has to change."

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