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Custodians' Abuses In New York Schools Provoke Reform Calls

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A report documenting extensive corruption among New York City school custodians has heightened public pressure on the city's board of education to reform the way the district's building services are managed.

Although school officials established controls in 1988 to stem abuses in the custodial system, the report, released this month by Edward F. Stancik, the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the city's schools, concluded that those reforms have largely failed.

Mr. Stancik detailed how custodians have been able to juggle second careers on school time, "borrow'' public money for personal purposes, and hire helpers who have criminal records.

The report cites the case of one custodian who has run a law practice during school hours and another who has often flown a corporate jet while on the school payroll.

As a result of the report, four custodians and one assistant now face a variety of criminal charges.

"It is not that these people were shrewd and evading the rules,'' Mr. Stancik said in an interview. "There was just nothing there to stop this from happening.''

Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez vowed last week to "dramatically alter the existing custodial system,'' which allows head custodians in each building to operate with little or no supervision in hiring staff and managing school funds.

"I have already moved to change the status quo by hiring private contractors'' in 33 city schools and ordering closer scrutiny of custodial budgets and payrolls, Mr. Fernandez said in a statement.

He also promised to give principals more discretionary power over building workers and to involve more parents in school-based management.

'No Accountability'

But John Fager of the Parents Coalition for Education, an advocacy group in the city, said he finds some of those promises hollow.

"We might get some of the phony reforms like we did in '88 and '84,'' Mr. Fager remarked, adding that the situation requires drastic action.

"This is a school system where there is absolutely no accountability at all,'' he added. The board "is tolerating criminality.''

At the center of the problem, according to the report, is the board's indirect system of supervision.

The city's 915 custodians, who earn average annual salaries of $58,000, function as "quasi-independent contractors,'' administering their own annual budget for supplies, equipment, and salaries for a custodial staff. But, unlike contractors, they have employment protection as both union members and board employees.

"They are either highly protected, tenured civil servants or independent contractors,'' Mr. Fager said. "Whatever benefits them.''

In an attempt to correct abuses, the board in 1988 began hiring plant managers as building supervisors who are independent of the custodians' union, Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

But the abuses continued, Mr. Stancik said.

Many of the custodians mingled public and personal funds, using school money to pay off loans or make repairs to their homes, he found.

"We were shocked when we saw this,'' he added. "We're talking about putting a whole budget in your bank account.''

"It violates every fundamental principle of accounting for managing government funds,'' he said.

Elizabeth Holtzman, the city comptroller, announced recently that she was banning custodians from putting school maintenance money into their personal accounts. She said the practice had never been brought to her attention.

The Principal's Role

The 108-page report, "A System Like No Other: Fraud and Misconduct by New York City School Custodians,'' also explained how the board's porous system of accountability fosters chronic inefficiency, absenteeism, and more serious forms of abuse.

Mr. Stancik described how one custodian spent as many as 600 hours of school time serving as the pilot of a corporate jet. Another operated a real-estate law practice, telling his custodial staff to "cover'' for him.

Investigators found that a Bronx custodian with an arrest record was hired at an elementary school, even though potential employees are supposed to be subjected to routine criminal checks. According to the report, he smoked marijuana and practiced target shooting in the basement of the school while children attended classes overhead.

Plant managers are typically assigned so many schools that they have little time to interact with school employees, said Mr. Stancik, who recommended that principals be given more authority as "on-site managers'' of their buildings.

Donald Singer, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, responded, "We have always advocated that principals have control over everything in the schools.''

But the problems with the custodial system are "out of our league,'' he added.

The board is going to have to "sit down with all the parties involved and work out a better scheme of supervision,'' Mr. Singer said.

However, hiring more private contractors for school cleaning, which the chancellor has already started doing, might not be necessary, he said.

"The majority of our members already have excellent relationships with the custodians,'' Mr. Singer said. "Everyone just needs to be more accountable.''

Criminal Charges

James Vlasto, a spokesman for the chancellor, said last week that the board would approach reforms through negotiations with the union.

"But if we cannot [make changes] like that,'' he said, "we will start contracting out when vacancies come up'' for custodial positions.

Officials of Local 891 could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Fernandez has fired two of the custodians cited in the report and has moved to insure that a retired custodian mentioned in the report cannot be hired again by the board.

As a result of the investigation, four custodians and one assistant have been charged. Their cases will be prosecuted by district attorneys in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. They are:

  • Samuel Lambert Jr., a custodian at Public School 151 in Manhattan, who allegedly filed false receipts for building supplies to account for money he apparently pocketed;
  • William Ryan, a custodian at a board of education building housing plant managers, who allegedly logged hours of school time on his cabin cruiser;
  • Michael Figluizzi, the custodian of Public School 11 in Queens, who allegedly disguised payroll abuse by failing to keep attendance records;
  • Phyllis Wegener, Mr. Figluizzi's girlfriend, who was hired as his part-time secretary although she reportedly spent most of her time working at a law office; and
  • Edward J. Butler of Public School 31K, who allegedly mishandled school money and falsified business records.

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