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Bucking Cortines, Mayor Rejects Accord With Custodians

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Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City last week rejected a tentative contract settlement reached by the city board of education and its custodians' union, despite Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines's assertion that it offered "revolutionary'' changes to a widely criticized system.

The agreement was reached after three years of talks with Local 891 of the Union of Operating Engineers, which represents the 853 custodians who clean, heat, and make minor repairs to the city's schools.

The custodial system has long been the subject of bitter complaints from critics, who charge that cleaning rules are too lax and that custodial-labor fees charged to community groups for after-hours school use are too high. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

In announcing the settlement, Mr. Cortines said it addressed many of the criticisms, including concerns about perquisites.

"This tentative contract is not a small change from the previous one, as most labor settlements are,'' he said. "It is revolutionary.''

But Mr. Giuliani and Randy L. Levine, the city's commissioner of labor, said the contract was too expensive and did not contain major reforms. For the contract to go into effect, it must be ratified by the union, approved by the board of education, and funded by the city.

Although representatives of the labor commissioner's office had been involved in the negotiations, Mr. Levine called for a new round of bargaining, saying he could get a better agreement.

"There is no deal as far as I'm concerned,'' Mr. Levine said in an interview last week. "This is a deal to agree to agree in the future and costs the city too much money.''

The dispute over the tentative contract came just weeks after Mr. Cortines briefly resigned over the Mayor's insistence that he appoint a monitor to track the school system's finances. (See Education Week, April 20, 1994.)

Mr. Cortines expressed disappointment that the city had rejected the tentative agreement.

"I think it is unfair of you to suggest that this tentative pact was somehow unduly favorable to the custodians' union,'' he wrote to Mr. Levine last week. "If this were so, why did it take the union three years to tentatively accept it?''

Joseph Stigliano, the president of Local 891, called the Mayor's decision to reject the contract "unfortunate but not surprising.''

Setting a Cleaning Schedule

The tentative agreement called for the custodians to agree with their principals and plant managers on a plan for keeping each school clean. Currently, custodians are required to perform cleaning tasks on a set schedule, regardless of how often their schools actually need cleaning.

Custodians would have been more accountable to principals, who would have had new authority to evaluate custodians. Promotions would have been tied to job performance and not simply to seniority.

The labor commissioner complained that the agreement for the "performance based'' cleaning system was too vague. Custodians, he argued, would have little incentive to agree to new cleaning plans with a new contract settled and raises in place.

Such a system also could have prompted demands from principals that they be compensated for supervising custodians, Mr. Levine added.

The agreement would have established affirmative-action goals for hiring new custodians and set controls on their timekeeping, purchasing, and inventory.

Under the pact, all purchases made by custodians would have remained the property of the board of education, rather than reverting to the custodians' ownership. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, now purchased with school funds by some custodians and then kept for personal use after five years, could have been bought only with the chancellor's "explicit approval.''

The agreement also would have reduced, and in some cases eliminated, the costs to community groups for keeping schools open.

In exchange, custodians would have received raises of 11.5 percent, retroactive to July 1990. Their salaries would have been capped at $76,859.

The board of education would have retained the right to continue to contract with private firms to clean schools.

Mr. Levine said many of the reforms in the contract were required by a state law passed last year. But Mr. Cortines said the law simply provided a "framework'' for negotiations.

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